12/21/2009Minnesota Supreme Court: State Can Grab Cars from Innocent Owners
Minnesota Supreme Court eliminates the ability of innocent joint vehicle owners to defend themselves from vehicle confiscation.
The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the right of police to confiscate vehicles from owners who have done nothing wrong. The decision narrowed the applicability of an "innocent owner" defense in cases where a vehicle is jointly owned. The high court considered the case of David and Jean Margaret Laase whose then-brand new 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe was confiscated in 2006.
Although David Laase was the Tahoe's primary driver, Jean Laase was driving the SUV alone on May 17, 2007 when she was pulled over and accused of drunk driving. Because Laase refused to submit to a breath test, the $40,000 vehicle was permanently confiscated as punishment for "second-degree criminal test refusal."
David Laase challenged the seizure on the grounds that his property had been taken from him even though he had done nothing wrong. State law appears to provide an exception for such cases.
"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," Minnesota Statutes Section 169A.63 states. "...If a motor vehicle is owned jointly by two or more people, each owner's interest extends to the whole of the vehicle and is not subject to apportionment."
The 4-3 majority on the court, led by Justice Lorie Gildea, concluded that it is sufficient for one owner to be guilty to nullify the innocent owner defense. It did so by construing the statute to mean that "all owners" must be innocent in order to block forfeiture.
"Because interests cannot be apportioned, the legislature seemingly intended that what happens to one owner should happen to all owners," Gildea wrote. "The legislature could have written that, if the vehicle is jointly owned, the owner who is not the offender may assert the defense. In that case, the defense would be available to any owner who is not an offender."
Justice Paul Anderson disagreed with the majority's interpretation, insisting that the ambiguous law should be read in a way limits, not broadens, state power.
"Given that the power to seize a person's property carries with it the potential for misuse, courts of justice must carefully scrutinize how the government exercises that power," Anderson wrote. "The context within which we must conduct our analysis is a disfavored forfeiture statute that we must strictly construe which means that if we have any doubt about the application of the statute, that doubt is to be resolved in favor of joint owner David Laase. Here, some initial doubt with respect to the application of section 169A.63 exists because nowhere does the statute provide that the innocent owner defense is not available to a non-offending joint owner such as David Laase."
The majority countered that it was the job of the legislature, not the courts, to limit the applicability of a law.
"We recognize that the result in this case may be open to question on policy grounds, and we do not disagree with Justice Paul Anderson's view about the importance of private property rights." Gildea wrote. "But in the absence of a constitutional challenge, which we do not have in this case, it is the role of the legislature, not the courts, to rewrite the statute to provide greater protection for private property. The public policy arguments therefore should be advanced to the legislature, the body that crafted the language that compels the result here."
A copy of the decision is available in a 220k PDF file at the source link below.