In recent years Minnesota government entities in their ceaseless search for more revenue have convinced our Legislature to pass laws that allow them to seize and sell real property, vehicles and other personal property associated with criminal activity. These forfeitures statutes are routinely used by prosecutors in felony drug cases and aggravated DUI offense cases. It is not usual for the value of a forfeited vehicle to greatly exceed the monetary fine paid by a defendant upon conviction for the offense that gave rise to the companion forfeiture action. Most responsible citizens would agree that it is appropriate to have a convicted person suffer some consequences for their illegal activities. What is objectionable is having the forfeiture penalty be disproportional to the crime committed.
The greatest need for an attorney in vehicle forfeiture case arise when the government attempts to over reach and seize a vehicle used by an intoxicated driver or by a felony level drug offender as part of their offense that is not owned by the offender charged in the case. Our firm has seen cases where the government sought to seize a vehicle that was not owned by the defendant in the underlying repeat offender DUI case or felony drug case. The government invariably argues that they should be allowed to seize the vehicle for one or more reasons as follows:
- The parent, spouse or friend who loaned the vehicle to the defendant knew the defendant would drive the vehicle while intoxicated or while selling, using or possessing drugs in felony level quantities.
- The vehicle was owned by the defendant even though it was titled in the name of a spouse, friend or relative.
- The friend, spouse or relative who owned the vehicle was somehow also involved in the defendant’s felony level drug offense or aggravated DUI offense.
- Other special facts exist that show the vehicle owner had knowledge of the defendant’s criminal activity.
The forfeiture process will commence with a simple letter from the law enforcement agency in possession of the vehicle after the crime is committed. The letter will tell the vehicle owner that his or her vehicle is being seized and he or she must either negotiate its return with the prosecuting authority or file a law suit challenging the forfeiture within 60 days of the forfeiture notice. If the vehicle is of limited value small claims court litigation is allowed. Very specific evidence must be presented in court to overcome the presumption in favor of forfeiture at trial. The services of an attorney with knowledge of vehicle forfeiture law will be necessary for a vehicle owner to prevail at trial in most cases.
To prevail at trial counsel should elicit evidence from the actual vehicle owners that proves by a preponderance of evidence all of the following:
- That the client (owner of the vehicle) is the actual registered owner of the vehicle and not merely a nominal title holder until a loan is repaid or otherwise only an owner of convenience.
- That the client (owner of the vehicle) is in the words of the case law an “innocent owner” who was not privy to the defendant’s plans to use the vehicle for illegal activity and otherwise had no knowledge and did not consent to the defendant’s use of the vehicle in an aggravated DUI or felony drug offense.
- That the action seeking to overcome the forfeiture was commenced within sixty (60) days of the receipt by the vehicle owner of the Notice of Forfeiture.
The current Minnesota Vehicle Forfeiture laws are draconian when the vehicle subject to forfeiture is new or involves a vehicle that even though it is a few years old was expensive when new and has retained its value. There are cases where forfeited vehicles worth tens of thousands of dollars can be recovered for a moderate expenditure of attorney’s fees.
This article is written to inform the public of the general state of the law in the area of law discussed. It is not a substitute for specific legal advice in a particular case. Clients with a vehicle forfeiture law issue should seek the services of an attorney knowledgeable in this area of the law immediately upon receiving a Notice of Vehicle Forfeiture.