Most people understandably believe that if a person commits a crime, he or she (and he or she alone) should be made to suffer the penalties associated with the crime. After all, if your cousin was convicted of shoplifting, it wouldn’t seem fair that you’re the one stuck paying for the stolen goods. Though it may not seem fair, it happens all the time in the context of civil forfeiture laws where property used in the commission of a crime can be confiscated by the government, even if the property belongs to someone else. Thankfully, things may be changing in Minnesota, where Governor Mark Dayton recently signed a new civil forfeiture law. To learn more about how the civil forfeiture process works in Minnesota, keep reading.
What is civil forfeiture?
Civil forfeiture is a process whereby a court approves the transfer of ownership of various items of property to a government entity, whether it’s local, state or federal. The item being forfeited could be almost anything, including money, jewelry, homes and, frequently, vehicles. Civil forfeiture is, as the name implies, a civil action brought against the item of property, not the owner of the property. It’s for this reason that civil forfeiture isn’t viewed as a criminal punishment. Civil forfeiture happens entirely separate from any criminal actions that may be directed at the defendant and can involve owners who may have had nothing to do with the underlying crime.
What does Minnesota law currently say?
Minnesota law says that police departments across the state have the clear authority to seize items of property, in particular, vehicles, that are used in the commission of various drunk driving criminal acts, including First and Second Degree DWI. Generally, forfeiture doesn’t occur to those who are first-time DWI offenders, but there are rare circumstances where forfeiture is allowed even for those arrested for the first time.
In Minnesota, motor vehicle forfeiture can occur regardless of the value of the vehicle or whether there is a loan on the car. The law also allows police to seize vehicles that belong to “innocent” owners, meaning that the owner of the car was not aware that the vehicle was being used by an impaired driver. This means that someone who loaned a vehicle to a friend or family member, unaware that they might be drinking and driving later that night, could still have their vehicle confiscated by police
What does the new law say?
Governor Dayton signed the new law earlier this month aimed at protecting those who unknowingly loaned vehicles to someone later arrested of drunk driving. The new law says that these people should be allowed to keep their vehicles and gives them a chance to challenge any forfeiture in court. The legislator who sponsored the bill said she did so because too many families rely on vehicles to get themselves to and from work or school, and allowing someone else’s bad decision to strip them of their transportation is fundamentally unfair.
The hope is that the new measure helps protect innocent auto owners from unnecessary property forfeiture. Last year, figures reveal that Minnesota police departments seized more than 6,700 vehicles and it’s unclear how many of these thousands belonged to innocent owners.
Source: “Dayton signs bill limiting forfeiture of some vehicles in DWI cases,” published at TwinCities.com.