Minnesota DWI Vehicle Forfeiture
Vehicle forfeiture often is one of the most startling and penalizing consequences of a DWI incident.
Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, police agencies have authority to seize permanentlyany vehicle used in the commission of First Degree DWI, Second Degree DWI, or any DWI occurring when the driver’s privileges are Canceled IPS (inimical to public safety) or when the driver has a B Card License (prohibiting the use of alcohol or drugs). Vehicle forfeiture occurs regardless of how valuable the vehicle is or whether there is a loan on the vehicle. At times, the police will not commence forfeiture of a vehicle that has a value of less than $1,000 or that is owned by an innocent party who did not commit the alleged DWI offense. At other times, the police by error or omission will fail to forfeit a vehicle that is otherwise subject to forfeit. However, that error can be corrected by the prosecuting authority at a later date.
Generally, vehicle forfeiture does not occur in a first-time DWI offense. To be charged with Second Degree DWI or Second Degree Test Refusal, a driver must have a prior DWI offense within the previous 10 years. To be charged with First Degree DWI, a driver must have three prior offenses within the 10-year period or have a prior felony DWI conviction in the driver’s lifetime. However, forfeiture can occur in a first-time incident under rare circumstances when a driver either refuses chemical testing or has a reported alcohol concentration of 0.16 or more, and has a child under age 16 in the car.
60 Days to Challenge DWI Vehicle Forfeiture in Court
After receiving notice of vehicle forfeiture, the owner of the vehicle has just 60 days to challenge vehicle forfeiture in court. Vehicle owners can challenge the forfeiture in conciliation court if the value of the vehicle is under $15,000. For vehicles worth more than $15,000, drivers must challenge the forfeiture in district court. Whether filed in conciliation or district court, the action must be served and filed appropriately within the 60-day deadline.
Specifically, the owner must serve the complaint upon the prosecuting authority and arresting agency and file an affidavit of service within the 60-day deadline. If the complaint is not served and filed correctly, the action likely will be dismissed because the court lacks jurisdiction.
Administrative Notice of Vehicle Forfeiture
DWI vehicle forfeitures can be initiated by law enforcement and prosecutors in two ways. First and most common, an arresting officer will issue the owner an administrative notice of vehicle forfeiture commonly titled “Notice of Seizure and Intent to Forfeit Vehicle.” This is done on the day of arrest or soon thereafter if the alleged offender is not the owner. The notice states that the owner has 60 days to challenge the forfeiture in court. In this scenario, the police impound the vehicle and place a hold on it, prohibiting the owner from getting the vehicle out of the impound lot. Ordinarily, the police agency will allow the owner to retrieve personal items from the forfeited vehicle.
Judicial Forfeiture Commenced by Complaint
Second and much less common, the prosecutor can commence a judicial forfeiture action in district court by serving a civil complaint against the owner. This typically happens when the vehicle has already been returned to the owner because the police did not complete an administrative forfeiture and the prosecutor subsequently learns that the vehicle is subject to forfeiture. If a judicial forfeiture is served upon the owner, the owner has 20 days to serve an Answer upon the prosecutor. Failure to file an answer within 20 days may result in a default judgment and permanent loss of the vehicle.
Innocent Owner Defense
A common issue arising in DWI forfeitures is the “innocent owner defense.” Police agencies often initiate administrative forfeiture of vehicles owned by third parties who did not commit the alleged DWI offense. For example, a person may commit DWI in a vehicle owned by his family member or friend. Unfortunately, the innocent owner does not have an automatic right to the return of the vehicle. Unless the police agency agrees to return the vehicle to the innocent owner at the outset, the innocent owner must challenge the forfeiture in court and prove to a judge by clear and convincing evidence that the owner was indeed innocent. Namely, the owner must prove that he “did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be used or operated in any manner contrary to law or that the owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.” Thus, the innocent owner bears the burden of proof that he was not complicit in the crime. Notably, if the alleged offender is a family member or friend and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions in his lifetime, the owner is presumed to know that any use of the vehicle by the alleged offender is contrary to law – regardless of the circumstances. Generally, such an owner will face great difficulty overcoming the adverse presumption of knowledge. However, he still can prevail if he proves that he took reasonable steps to prevent the offender’s use of the vehicle.
For an article about Jay Carey’s successful representation of an innocent owner in a DWI forfeiture, please read this Star Tribune article.
Even if the owner successfully asserts the innocent owner defense in court, a common issue arising is whether the owner nonetheless is liable for storage fees during the pendency of the case. Under the authority of Genin v. 1996 Mercury Marquis, the owner should not be liable for storage fees, but many judges get this point wrong even though common sense dictates otherwise.
Security Interests Affect DWI Forfeitures
Forfeited vehicles often are encumbered by lenders’ securities interests in the vehicles. Minnesota DWI forfeiture laws protect the security interests of lenders and lessors by requiring that the vehicles (or the proceeds of a sheriff’s sale of the vehicles) be returned to the secured parties or lessors. In many instances, prosecutors will agree to return vehicles to secured parties and lessors at the outset of the cases in order to minimize costs to the city and police agencies. Nonetheless, the vehicle’s owner may wind up owing money to the secured party or lessor to the extent that the secured party or lessor has not been made whole in the transaction.
Several defenses and strategies exist in DWI forfeiture cases, and an owner should consult promptly with a DWI lawyer to see if he can obtain return of the forfeited vehicle by agreement or court order. Failure to act within 60 days of the offense may cause the owner to lose all ownership and value in the vehicle – no matter how strong his case may be.