The Minnesota Supreme Court recently affirmed a law as constitutional that allows police to seize property of a person if it was used in the commission of a crime, even if they weren’t the ones committing the crime.
The case in question involves Megan Olson and her mother Helen. Megan was no stranger to the police, having already amassed three DWI convictions before she was arrested by Shakopee police in August of 2015. The only real difference with this arrest was that she was driving her mother’s 1999 Lexus when she was stopped by police. Police seized the vehicle because it was used in the commission of a crime, even though it wasn’t Megan’s property.
Now, Minnesota isn’t normally that harsh when it comes to property seizures, as there’s a provision in the state’s vehicle forfeiture law that helps to prevent innocent people from losing their vehicles. However, there’s also another provision that prevents against willful ignorance. The provision states that if an offender is family or a household member of the person who owns the vehicle, and the offender has three or more impaired driving convictions, the state assumes that the owner of the vehicle knows that lending their vehicle to the offender is contrary to the law. Essentially, Helen knew she was lending her vehicle to Megan even though Megan wouldn’t be able to legally operate her car based on the previous convictions, and therefore was not an innocent bystander in the situation.
State Supreme Court Divided
Earlier today, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the provision asserting that Helen was complicit in the situation based on her knowledge of her daughter’s previous DWIs was constitutional. However, they ruled in Helen’s favor over the forfeiture, citing that Helen’s right to due process was violated.
According to the law, a hearing over the vehicle forfeiture cannot be held until a DWI case is resolved. It took 18 months before Megan pleaded guilty to the charge, which the court ruled was too long when a forfeiture was hanging in the balance.
“Certainly, the State’s interest in keeping drunk drivers off the road remains present in the context of Helen’s constitutional challenge,” Justice Paul Thissen said, writing for the majority. “After all, even though Helen was not the person driving while impaired, the Legislature has recognized that Helen’s possible failure to prevent Megan from driving under the influence matters. Nonetheless, the fact that the vehicle was not seized because Helen was driving it while impaired means that the government interest in keeping repeat DWI offenders off the road weighs less with regard to her.
Indeed, there was no way for Helen to even raise the possibility that she is an innocent owner before a district court—much less show it through evidence— until the criminal charges against Megan were resolved, because the DWI forfeiture statute provides no probable cause hearing for potentially innocent owners, nor does it provide any mechanism by which such a claimant could speed up the hearing process. Consequently, the risk of erroneous deprivation for a purportedly innocent owner like Helen is significant.
Most critically, Minn. Stat. § 169A.63 provides no assessment whatsoever—let alone a reliable assessment—that the State has the legal authority to permanently take the vehicle of a purportedly innocent owner like Helen. Under these circumstances, we hold that due process urgently requires a prompt hearing on innocent owner defenses under the DWI forfeiture statute.”
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Justice Anne McKeig penned the dissent, stating that due process was not violated even thought it took a year and a half before Helen could challenge her forfeiture case.
“Given that the burden of proving unconstitutionality is on Helen, it is not too much in my view, to require Helen to show that she took advantage of all available remedies the statute provides for her before we conclude that she met her burden.
It might be, as the majority speculates, that the county attorney would not carry out its responsibility under the remission statute. But we typically do not assume the worst in our government officials.”
It’s good to see the local Supreme Court recognize the lack of due process from Helen’s standpoint, even if she was complicit based on another law. It shouldn’t take a person 18 months to be able to challenge their forfeiture case. Hopefully more favorable rulings come down the pipeline in the near future, like when the state legislature votes on ending the practice of administrative forfeitures later this year.
If you’ve had property forfeited in Minnesota, reach out to the experienced lawyers at Appelman Law Firm today for help with your case.