Back in 2017, we reported on the new state law that permits innocent owners to request a hearing to prevent their vehicles from being confiscated if they lend their vehicle to someone who is ultimately arrested for DWI. However, this law recently came under attack when an innocent owner’s vehicle was seized and impounded for 18 months while her daughter’s DWI criminal trial concluded.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a ruling that aims to further protect innocent vehicle owners from its existing confiscation law. In Olson v. One 1999 Lexus (Minn. Sup. Ct., 3/13/2019) the Court held that police cannot confiscate vehicles from innocent owners anymore without providing them a timely hearing to prove their innocent-owner status.
Olson began on 7 October 2015 when Shakopee Police confiscated a white 1999 Lexus RX300 SUV because its driver—Megan Olson—was stopped for suspicion of DWI. This was her third such incident. However, the vehicle belonged to Olson’s mother, Helen, who had no recourse to address the seizure of her car until her daughter’s criminal trial was complete.
Despite the fact that current law did, in fact, contain an “innocent owner” clause, another section of the law emphasizes that this defense cannot be exercised if the at-fault driver was a family member with three prior DWI convictions which was the case here.
The Olsons moved to have the law struck down as violative of due process and argued that the law seized property from owners who were not accused of any criminal activity without providing them the opportunity to challenge the actual taking until the criminal trial had ended. In this case, Megan Olson’s trial ended 13 February 2017—18 months after the initial seizing.
Court decisions and rationale
While the district court agreed with the petitioners that the law was, indeed, unconstitutional, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the law was constitutional, albeit not in this particular case. The State Supreme Court adopted the Appellate Court’s reasoning in that due process “requires that an individual receive notice and an opportunity to be heard before the government takes her property” and that “it is possible that the criminal proceedings underlying a [DWI] forfeiture case could be resolved with sufficient speed to satisfy due process.”
The Court had to strike a balance between the cost of holding a prompt hearing after every single vehicle seizure (after all, there were 3,596 vehicles were confiscated in Minnesota in 2017 alone) and avoiding situations like the Olsons’ in which the petitioner was unjustly without her vehicle for 18 months. Thus, the Court determined that said hearings should be limited to special circumstances such as in the Olsons’ case to lessen the burden on both innocent owners and the court system.
Even though the existing statute does contain a process by which a prosecutor can utilize discretion in releasing a vehicle, the Court argued that vague standards and informal processes do not further due process; they only set the stage for abuse. Thus, the majority ultimately held that innocent owners—especially those who would sustain an undue hardship—should be given a prompt hearing with respect to vehicle confiscation.
In this case, the Court released Helen Olson’s Lexus that had been held in an impound lot for three years without any charges and determined that she shouldn’t have to attend a hearing to prove she was, in fact, an innocent owner in this matter.