Court of Appeals clarifies DWI forfeiture law in Minnesota

Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals handed down an important decision in a DWI vehicle forfeiture case. The Minnesota vehicle forfeiture statute applies to a specified variety of offenses, including first and second-degree DWI cases. Vehicle forfeiture cases are not directly a part of the criminal case against a person accused of DWI, but the forfeiture is related to the DWI charge.

A 2007 Court of Appeals decision ruled that the vehicle forfeiture statute in Minnesota applies if the car “was used in the commission of a designated offense.” That case involved a person who was charged with second-degree DWI test refusal, which was later dismissed under a plea agreement. In last week’s decision, the appellate court ruled that if a person challenges the forfeiture proceeding and the driver accused of the designated DWI offense is not ultimately convicted after properly appearing in the criminal DWI case, the plain language of the Minnesota statute demands that the state return the vehicle.

The new appellate court ruling clarifies an important point in the DWI forfeiture law. In last week’s ruling, the court considered a part of the forfeiture statute that was not addressed in the 2007 decision. Essentially, the driver accused of the designated offense in last week’s decision entered a plea agreement to a third-degree DWI offense, which is not a qualifying offense in the forfeiture statute. The second-degree DWI charge was dismissed as a part of the plea agreement.

The owner of the car that was purportedly subject to forfeiture challenged the forfeiture in court. The trial judge ruled that because the driver accused of the second-degree DWI charge ultimately pled guilty to a third-degree DWI charge related to the same incident, the vehicle should go to the state, based upon the 2007 appellate court ruling.

Last week’s decision overturned the trial court ruling because two things happened that were not addressed in the earlier ruling. One, the owner of the car properly filed a challenge to the forfeiture in court. And two, the accused was not convicted of a qualifying offense under the forfeiture statute. The Court of Appeals ruled that the forfeiture statute plainly states that under those circumstances, the car must be returned to the owner.

The court addressed a provision in the forfeiture statute that places limits on the scope of the harsh forfeiture law that was not addressed in the prior appellate ruling.

The lesson to be learned from the ruling is that when a person is facing DWI charges in Minnesota, it is vitally important to consult with an experienced DWI defense attorney who is also well-versed in not only Minnesota DWI license revocations laws, but also DWI vehicle forfeiture law as soon as possible after an arrest.

DWI/DUI laws in Minnesota can result in other serious consequences outside the criminal case. The timeline to challenge a license revocation or vehicle forfeiture is short, and an experienced Minneapolis and St. Paul DWI defense attorney can explain the complex issues directly involved and those associated with DWI charges in Minnesota.

Source: Minnesota Court of Appeals, “Patino vs. One 2007 Chevrolet A11-309,” Oct. 31, 2011

He has won jury trial cases in misdemeanor and felony cases and in DWI’s and non-DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. He is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

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