MN Supreme Court: Mom shouldn’t have lost car, when daughter used it to drive drunk

Megan Olson already had three DWI convictions to her name when she was arrested by Shakopee police in August 2015. Under Minnesota law, her “first-degree DWI” meant the authorities could seize the car she was driving — a 1999 Lexus.

There was just one problem: it wasn’t her car. It belonged to her mother.

There is a provision in the state’s vehicle forfeiture law that prevents innocent people from losing their cars. But there’s also this provision:

If the offender is a family or household member of any of the owners who petition the court and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions, the petitioning owner is presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.

On Wednesday, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court declined to find the provision unconstitutional, but still said Helen Olson, Megan’s mother, was deprived of due process (see ruling).

Under the law, a hearing on the forfeiture can’t be held until the DWI case is solved. It took 18 months before Megan Olson pleaded guilty, which lower courts said was too long.

“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,” Thissen wrote.

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.

In her dissent, however, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, joined by Justice Anne McKeig, disagreed that the mother losing the car without a timely hearing is unconstitutional.

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.

Appellate courts have increasingly trimmed the ability of law enforcement to confiscate property via forfeiture.

Last month, for example, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the ban on excessive fines — including vehicle forfeiture — applied to states and local governments.

“Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a unanimous ruling. “They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue.”

A bill at the Minnesota Legislature this year would ban the entire practice of “administrative forfeiture.”

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