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DWI Vehicle Forfeiture: Innocent Owner Defense

DWI Vehicle Forfeiture: Innocent Owner Defense

One of the collateral consequences of a DWI charge is vehicle forfeiture. Specifically, when an Minnesota driver is charged with a 2nd Degree DWI or 1st Degree DWI, the vehicle used by the offender in the offense (i.e., the car, boat,  snowmobile, or ATV being used while supposedly driving drunk or over .08) is subject to forfeiture. Forfeiture means the government seizes the vehicle. Permanently.

Fortunately, a Minnesota DWI Vehicle Forfeiture can be challenged. An offender has 30 days to challenge the forfeiture. For an offender whose vehicle is seized for forfeiture, there are a number of defenses to vehicle forfeiture.

But what happens when an offender gets arrested for a DWI and the police try to seize the vehicle, but the vehicle belongs to someone else? For example: an individual allows their friend to use a car for the night;  the friend gets arrested for DWI; the vehicle used by the friend but owned by the individual is seized. Can the individual get his or her car back? The answer is yes. The vehicle forfeiture laws allow for what’s called an “innocent owner” defense.  Minnesota Statute § 169A.63 subd. 7(d) says:

(d) 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 or that the owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender. If the offender is a family or household member of the owner and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions, the owner is presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law. “Vehicle use contrary to law” includes, but is not limited to, violations of the following statutes:

(1) section 171.24 (violations; driving without valid license);

(2) section 169.791 (failure to produce proof of   insurance

(3) section 171.09 (driving restrictions; authority, violations);

(4) section 169A.20 (driving while impaired);

(5) section 169A.33 (underage drinking and driving); and

(6) section 169A.35 (open bottle law).

This means that if the owner of a vehicle didn’t know the driver was going to get drunk and drive, then the owner can assert an “innocent owner” defense. The owner will need to come to Court and prove to the Judge that the owner didn’t know the driver was going to be driving drunk (or violating the law in any other manner listed above).  If the owner can prove this to a Judge, then the vehicle will be returned – even if the driver is convicted.

However, the innocent owner is not available in one notable circumstance: joint-ownership of the car. If two people, such as a husband and wife, are the joint owners of the car, and the husband gets a DWI without his wife’s knowledge, then the wife cannot be classified as an innocent owner. The Minnesota Supreme Court has said that under joint ownership, the owner of the car who didn’t commit the offense can’t raise the innocent owner defense. Instead, this person has to raise one of the other vehicle forfeiture defenses, such as a due process violation or an argument based on the motor vehicle exemption.  If you or someone you know if facing a loss of a vehicle through Minnesota DWI vehicle forfeiture or a Minnesota drug forfeiture, call an experienced, knowledgeable Minnesota Criminal Defense Attorney right away.  

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