An Innocent Owner’s fight to get her Property back

One of the Anderson Law Firm’s clients was recently featured in a story on WCCO-TV, regarding her fight to get possession of her vehicle back from the Minnesota State Patrol following a DWI-Refusal that another individual had committed while driving her car.  Kirk Anderson was interviewed as well.

Law enforcement’s seizure and attempted forfeiture of a non-offending owner’s property is an issue that comes up far too often in the State of Minnesota. In these situations, the burden of proof falls solely on the non-offending owner to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that they did not have any knowledge that their vehicle would be used “contrary to law.” Minn.Stat. Sect. 169A.63, sub. 7. Under the statute, the State does not need to make any type of showing that the owner had knowledge of the illegal use prior to seizing the vehicle and seeking forfeiture. The only burden on the State is to show that the driver had committed the offense. The clear and convincing standard is a heightened standard of proof for the owner which makes it more difficult for an owner to meet.

The Anderson Law Firm has challenged challenged the civil forfeiture laws in Minnesota for years, and has successfully asserted the ‘innocent owner’ defense several times. However, during all of these prior matters, the owner did not commit any criminal offense, was deprived of their property for several months, and had to incur significant time and expense in order to get possession of their property.

Civil forfeitures in general is ripe for abuse by law enforcement because they have a financial interest in seeking forfeiture. If successful, law enforcement either gets to either keep the vehicle itself, or keep seventy percent (70%) of the profits received from a public auction. Minn.Stat. Sect. 169A.63, subd. 10. This is an inherent conflict of interest. Plus, there is nothing for law enforcement to lose by seeking forfeiture and it is certainly of no inconvenience for them whatsoever.

Although the Legislature did make significant changes to the forfeiture laws in 2014, it did not address the innocent owner issue at all. Indeed, the biggest opponent to any changes to the forfeiture laws are generally law enforcement agencies.

Indeed, Justice G. Barry Anderson, recently highlighted some of these issues in a concurring opinion:

“On the record now before our court, I join in the majority opinion. I write separately, however, to highlight at least one of the serious problems presented by our forfeiture process in Minnesota. As the majority opinion notes in passing, Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 10(b) (2012), provides for the distribution of seized assets to the law enforcement agency responsible for the asset seizure and the prosecuting authority bringing the seizure action.
And therein lies a significant conflict of interest. Notwithstanding the laudable public policy goals that underlay the original legislative decision to provide for asset forfeiture, law enforcement and prosecutors have a financial interest in deciding which assets to seize and that decision may or may not be informed by agency budget considerations. Indeed, the United States Department of Justice has produced a guide that urges law enforcement to use asset forfeiture to boost the “bottom line” of police agencies. John L. Worrall, Asset Forfeiture 14 (Problem–Oriented Guides for Police, Response Ser. No. 7, 2008) (“The obvious advantage of asset forfeiture is its potential to boost an agency’s bottom line…. Researchers have found, indeed, that forfeiture can assist agencies by augmenting their discretionary budgets.”), available at www.
Under the current statutory scheme there is no effective check on an agency’s decision to seek forfeiture in one case and not in another. And while there are, in theory, defenses available to those whose assets have been seized, the owner is often financially unable to mount an effective defense.
With all due respect to our law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities, this statutory forfeiture regime creates the wrong incentives and is inconsistent with historic American insistence on checking authority. As James Madison observed long ago, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The Federalist No. 51, at 398–99 (James Madison) (J.B. Lippincott ed., 1880). There are, no doubt, many different ways to address this concern, as well as other challenges associated with our statutory forfeiture procedures, but the proper venue to deal with these problems is the Legislature. The undertaking of this effort is long overdue.”

Nielsen v. 2003 Honda Accord, 845 N.W.2d 754, 760-61 (Minn. 2013) concurring opinion.

Until the Minnesota Legislature addresses this issue, it is likely to continue for a long time to come. Watch WCCO’s story here.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact attorney Kirk Anderson for an initial consultation.