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Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse under DWI Car Forfeiture Statute

Today the Minnesota Supreme Court released a decision interpreting a Minnesota Statute in a way to deprive an innocent spouse of their legal right to keep their car, jointly owned by a spouse who drove it in violation of a law.   The Case, David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, A07-2023, December 17, 2009, was another 4-3 split and splintered decision – with the majority reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, to rule against the civil property rights of the individual.

Divorce to Protect Your Property?

The court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), does not apply in a case of joint ownership of a vehicle if one of the joint owners is also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle.

The majority’s new rule is that all joint owners of a motor vehicle must be innocent in order for any owner to employ the innocent owner defense in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).

As Justice Paul Anderson points out in his dissent,

“The context of the case before us involves a DWI forfeiture statute that contemplates both the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit motor vehicles used in the commission of designated offenses and protection for innocent motor vehicle owners. Thus, the context within which we must conduct our analysis is a disfavored forfeiture statute that we must strictly construe which means that if we have any doubt about the application of the statute, that doubt is to be resolved in favor of joint owner … .”

The case involves Minnesota’s DWI forfeiture statute which creates both a presumption that a person arrested for suspected DWI will forfeit their car to the State; and also contains an affirmative defense for innocent owners of cars driven by someone else arrested for suspected DWI.  What about the case where a car is jointly owned by two or more people, such as the family car that the non-offending spouse needs to get to work?

Justice Page concludes his dissent with:

“I would construe the word ‘owner’ to refer to each individual owner throughout section 169A.63. Thus, under subdivision 7(d), a vehicle is not subject to forfeiture if any of its owners can demonstrate that he or she, individually, did not know the vehicle would be used contrary to law. Similarly, under subdivision 7(d), it is up to each of the owners to demonstrate that he or she ‘took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.’ An owner that can make the required showing cannot be divested of his or her interest in the vehicle, which subdivision 1(h) instructs extends to the whole of the vehicle. Because Mr. Laase made the required showing, I would hold that his interest in the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture.”

Is this another bad 4-3 splintered decision, with the slim majority again ruling against the rights of the individual?  So it would seem.  At least in this unjust situation, the Minnesota legislature could fix it next legislative session by amending the statute the court was interpreting.

Will the legislature repair this injustice in the law?  Public anger has been building for years over the use of asset forfeiture laws to legally steal private property, with the excuse of some crime having been committed, or the possibility of one.  The most frequent use of these laws has been in the areas of Minnesota asset forfeitures in drug cases, and in DWI cases.  Most of the injustices in these laws are common to all types of asset forfeiture statutes (whether based upon drugs, DWI or prostitution).  The innocent owner issue is only one of many.

One of these issues is the conflict of interest created by allowing the law enforcement agency which legally steals the property from the citizen, to keep much of the money proceeds from that seizure and forfeiture.  Two of the Justices concurring with the majority in David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe highlighted the issue, in Justice Barry Anderson’s concurrence:

“[T]here is reason to question the balance struck by the legislature between various competing interests.  For example, given the general disfavor of forfeiture statutes, the wisdom of vesting the right to possession of a forfeited vehicle in the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest of a defendant and the forfeiture of a defendant‘s vehicle is not immediately evident. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.63, subds. 1(b), 2, and 3 (2008).  But such issues are for the legislature to address, not this court.

The 4-3 majority opinion, was supported by two concurring Justices who wrote, in essence, that the law  was unfair and should be changed – but by the legislature not the court (see quote above).  The three dissenting Justices also noted the serious unfairness of the statute as interpreted by the majority opinion.  Therefore five of the seven essentially agreed on one thing – the statute allowing the government to take the private property of an innocent spouse or other co-owner is unfair and should be changed.

This issue was referenced in a recent article in the Star Tribune newspaper, Crime fighters gone rogue, where a  leader of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force explained in relation to financial stress due to underfunding from the legislature, he:

“… turned in 2003 to the only major source of cash he could find: money seized from suspected drug dealers, gang members and other targets. Over the next two years, Ryan told state examiners, his unit survived on virtually nothing else.

‘We had no money and we were begging, borrowing and I hesitate to say stealing, that would be the wrong place, but … that’s the way we were operating,’ Ryan said, according to a transcript of his formal interview with the Legislative Auditor’s Office.”

Is it fair to law enforcement officers to create laws like this with inherent conflicts of interest – inciting them to take from the poor, and give to their own agency of the government?  Can a normal human be completely immune to such powerful temptations?  Why should Minnesota laws encourage such mischief upon the individual people of Minnesota?

Let’s see if the Minnesota legislature will reform forfeiture laws in Minnesota this year.

By Thomas C. Gallagher, a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.

How to Know > Do You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

Do I need a Minnesota Criminal Lawyer?

Do I need a Minnesota Criminal Lawyer?

Do You Need a Lawyer?

When it comes to criminal law, most people have been fortunate never to have ask themselves that question.  We do not expect the unexpected.  How do you know when, “I need a lawyer!”

Value of Keeping Your Public Criminal Records Clean

With no public criminal record, your potential future employers won’t be scared off by a criminal conviction.  You could be disqualified from certain occupational licenses  in the event you were convicted of a crime.   Certain convictions can also result in: loss of civil rights, such as voting and firearms rights; removal and deportation from the U.S.; denial of naturalization; loss of student financial aid; loss of housing; offender registration, and other negative consequences.

For many, the largest, quantifiable impact will be to future income stream.   How can a criminal conviction affect your future income?  If you assume a person is age 30 and will work until 70, that is 40 years. Multiply 40 years times a conservative $20,000 estimated reduction in annual income as the result of a conviction.  That would amount to $800,000.  At eight percent interest per year, that would be over one million dollars in lost income by age 70. I have had clients suffer a $45,000 per year reduction in income while an expungement proceeding was pending in court, so the real number could be in the millions, depending upon career path.

Is Jail or Prison Time Probable if Convicted? 

If you are charged with a serious criminal offense, there may be a threat of jail or even prison time.  Even for minor crimes, jail can be a real threat, when a person has prior convictions.  The maximum possible incarceration term specified in the criminal statute charged is rarely executed.  In felony cases, the Minnesota or Federal Sentencing Guidelines will provide a “presumptive sentence” after based upon the severity level of the offense of conviction and criminal history score.  Though there can be upward or downward departures from the presumptive sentence, it is useful to look at the presumptive sentence. There are also “mandatory minimum” sentencing statutes in Minnesota and United States Statutes which can be cruel, severe, and lengthier than the presumptive guidelines sentence.  It is vital to consult a criminal defense lawyer to discuss these factors. In non-felony, misdemeanor cases, up to one year in jail can be possible in Minnesota cases.

If It Is Important to You, Then It’s Worth Getting the Best Lawyer You Can to Help

For many reasons, it is valuable to prevent a criminal charge, to prevent a criminal conviction, and to prevent a criminal sentence in Minnesota.  The rule is simple.  If it is important, then it is important to have a good lawyer’s help in protecting it.  You and your family are worth a lot.  A good criminal lawyer can help protect your future, and your future income earning potential.  Protect your good name while you can – before it’s too late, before a guilty plea.  (Keep in mind that in order to qualify for a Minnesota expungement someday under Minnesota’s expungement statute, you’ll need to plan ahead in order to do so, with the help of a good criminal defense lawyer while the charge is still pending.)

This article was written by Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer  Thomas Gallagher.  Gallagher answers questions about Minnesota law court cases and issues every day, free, over the phone.  He also provides free half-hour office consultations by appointment.  You can give Gallagher a call with your question or to make an appointment at 612 333-1500.

A Rose is a Rose is a … Sale? How “Cultivate” can mean “Sell” – Alice in Minnesota Law-land

Marijuana Growing: Minnesota Law

Marijuana Growing Indoors

Does the word “Cultivate” actually mean “Sell?”  No?

Well, the Minnesota legislature has decreed otherwise.

Minnesota lawmakers, influenced by the state’s prosecutors, have taken a page from Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Lookinglass:

’When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ” it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make a words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master – that’s all.”

The legislature likes to think it has the power to define terms in any way they wish (with courts, juries, and voters the only limits).  Just like Humpty Dumpty in Alice, sometimes they go too far – giving words a statutory definition completely divorced from the common meaning of a word.  Yet – their power has limits.  The courts can strike down such nonsense as unconstitutional.  And the People on the Jury have the power of Jury Nullification – to acquit anyone accused of a crime based on a law that that the Jury finds to be nonsense.  A juror can veto the law.  This power is a core ingredient designed by the framers as a check and balance on the power of the elites in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

If you grow a tomato in your backyard, then eat it there off the vine; have you by doing so also “Sold” it?  Replace “tomato” with “marijuana.”  Same conclusion?

For more on this topic take a look at our Minnesota marijuana grow defense page – by Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Defense Lawyer.