Minnesota’s Forfeiture Statute and Joint Vehicle Ownership
Two weeks ago, on December 17, 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an opinion that specifically and dramatically addressed the issue of joint vehicle ownership and forfeiture.
The appellate case was entitled, “David Lee Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe,” and the basic facts were as follows: Mr. Laase and his wife owned a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe. Both their names were on the title, as many married couples’ names both appear on the titles to their vehicles. Ms. Laase was driving the Tahoe on May 16, 2006, when she met up with her husband at their golf club. Mr. Laase left the club in the early evening, and Ms. Laase stayed for an evening game. The next time he heard from her was at 1 o’clock the next morning, as she’d been arrested for DWI.
Mr. Laase asserted the innocent owner defense, as per Minnesota Statute section 169A.63 subd. 7(d) (2008), which states, “A motor vehicle is not subject to forfeiture under this section if its owner can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the owner 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 the use of the vehicle by the offender.”
Mr. Laase won the forfeiture challenge in district court, arguing that because he was an owner of the vehicle and he had no knowledge – either actual or constructive – that the Tahoe was going to be used in the commission of a DWI, the Tahoe should not be subject to forfeiture and he should receive the vehicle back because he was an owner of the vehicle and he was innocent. The Minnesota Court of Appeals also agreed with Mr. Laase, after the County appealed the district court’s ruling. The County next appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that because BOTH owners of the vehicle were not innocent, the innocent owner’s defense shouldn’t apply to ANY owner of the vehicle.
The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed with both the district court and the Appellate Court and adopted the County’s argument. Supreme Court stated in its December 17 opinion that although the statute is written in the singular – owner – the legislature actually meant for that singular term to include the plural version of the term as well.
In short, that by drafting the law using the word “owner”, the legislature meant for the law to be read, “owner or owners.” The opinion includes a long discussion of canons of interpretation and the differences between “textual canons,” “extrinsic source canons,” and “substantive policy canons.” The result is that the Minnesota Supreme Court found that because each owner’s interest in the vehicle is an interest in the whole vehicle, any owner’s action that triggers forfeiture means the whole vehicle is subject to forfeiture.
The Minnesota Supreme Court did leave the door open for future defenses, even as they closed the door for the innocent owner statute in cases like the Lasses’. The Court concluded its opinion by stating that the outcome might be different in a case in which the vehicle in question is jointly owned, but is exclusively used by the owner not responsible for the forfeiture (see footnote 5 of the opinion), or in cases in which a challenge is made regarding the innocent owner’s constitutional rights (see footnote 11).
Finally, the Minnesota Supreme Court clearly stated in both the majority opinion and in Justice Barry Anderson’s concurring opinion that it is the legislature’s job to re-write statutes to ensure greater protection for private property and that as “the wisdom of vesting the right to possession of a forfeited vehicle in the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest of the defendant and the forfeiture of a defendant’s vehicle is not immediately evident,” perhaps those questions should be put to the legislature in the near future.
If you or someone you know has been arrested for a DWI or DUI in Minnesota or has had their motor vehicle forfeited as the result of a DWI arrest, call Attorney Douglas T. Kans at 952-835-6314 or 1800-972-6060 for a free consultation.