The Minnesota Supreme Court recently issued an important opinion that follows up on an earlier decision we covered out of the Minnesota Court of Appeals (found here). The state’s highest court dealt with the issue of vehicle forfeiture in the recently released opinion, Laura Patino v. One 2007 Chevrolet.
In Patino, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that the state’s DWI vehicle forfeiture law does not apply to situations where a person appears in court and is never convicted of the “designated offense” which triggered the attempted vehicle forfeiture.
First things first, it is important to explain exactly what a “designated offense” is. The Supreme Court wrote that the term refers only to charges of first and second-degree driving while impaired. This definition is found in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63(1)(e)(1).
Patino’s case is important because it puts to rest an earlier decision out of the Minnesota Court of Appeals that held that a conviction for a designated offense was not required to justify a vehicle forfeiture. That case was Chad Scott Mastakoski v. 2003 Dodge Durango and the Supreme Court found that it was specifically overruled to the extent that it conflicted with the ruling in Patino’s case.
The government tried to argue that the statute in question does not specifically require a conviction for a designated offense, but that one only need commit a designated offense to justify a vehicle forfeiture. This might be a good time to explain exactly what the Minnesota forfeiture law stands for. Minn. Stat. § 169A.63(9)(f) says:
“If the forfeiture is based on the commission of a designated offense and the person charged with the designated offense appears in court as required and is not convicted of the offense, the court shall order the property returned to the person legally entitled to it…”
The Court held that Mastakoski was wrongly decided given that a plain reading of the state’s law reveals that legislators intended for vehicles to be seized only in instances where the accused drunk driver fails to appear in court and is convicted of the underlying designated offense.
In Patino, prosecutors attempted to seize the vehicle based on the defendant’s boyfriend being charged with one count of second degree DWI. Prosecutors argued that Patino was not an “innocent owner” of the vehicle given that she knew her boyfriend did not have a valid driver’s license when she agreed to loan him her car. Patino’s boyfriend properly showed up in court and was ultimately found guilty of third degree DWI, an offense that is not listed as a designated offense under the state’s DWI vehicle forfeiture law.
Though the government insisted the vehicle forfeiture statute should not be construed so rigidly, the Supreme Court disagreed and sided with Patino. Ultimately, the Court ordered that Patino have her vehicle returned to her. The case marks an important victory for those facing similar charges in the state and represents good news for all those concerned about the government’s encroachment on an individual’s private property rights.
To read the full opinion, click here.