Changes in civil forfeiture laws could enable a car or truck owner to keep their vehicle when another person uses it to drive while intoxicated (DWI). Approximately 6,700 vehicles were seized by Minnesota police in 2016, with about 3,000 being related to DWI. It is unknown how many of these cars and trucks were the property of innocent people. In early April, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill into law that will protect vehicle owners from losing their property unnecessarily.
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Understanding Civil Forfeiture Laws in Minnesota
In Minnesota, police have the authority to seize property that is involved in criminal activity. Although the property can be almost anything, including money, jewelry, and even homes, vehicles used in the committing various criminal drunk driving acts are more commonly seized. Civil vehicle forfeiture occurs completely separately from any criminal charges. In many cases, seizure happens to property that belongs to people who had no idea that their vehicle or other belongings were being used in criminal activity.
In most cases, vehicles are not confiscated in first-time DWI convictions. Forfeitures are more common in cases where the defendant has been previously convicted of driving while intoxicated. In rare circumstances, however, seizure is allowed even for first time offenders.
What the New Vehicle Forfeiture Law Says
Under the new law, people who unknowingly loan their vehicles to someone who is later arrested for DWI may be able to retain ownership of their property. According to Rep. Marion O’Neill, the legislator who sponsored the Bill, it is unfair for innocent vehicle owners to have their property confiscated due to the criminal acts of someone else. The new measure gives innocent Minnesota citizens the chance to challenge any forfeiture in court.
When a DWI Occurs in Minnesota
Unfortunately, the protections offered under the new law are not automatic, and many people will still lose their vehicles — at least initially. To recover a seized vehicle, the innocent property owner must challenge any forfeiture before a judge, and the burden of proof lies with the vehicle owner. Additionally, when an offender has had three or more DWI convictions and is a family member of, or resides with, the petitioning owner, the owner is presumed to be aware that vehicle operation by the offender is likely contrary to law.
While challenges for innocent property owners still remain, it is hoped that the recent changes will help protect vehicle owners from unfair property confiscation.