Most people realize that when police bust criminal rings, such as gangs, drug runners or organized crime, the flashy assets of those groups can be confiscated by local law enforcement. Sports cars, expensive jewelry, guns, etc., can all be seized and then sold by police departments across the country. This is known as civil asset forfeiture and it’s a common tool used by law enforcement agencies to crack down on those profiting from their crimes.
What many people may not realize is that this same approach is used, more commonly, in drunk driving cases, far less exciting than those involving drug lords or gang bangers. Critics say that seizing the vehicles of those arrested for drunk driving goes against the purpose of the forfeiture laws given that the cars do not represent the spoils of impaired drivers’ criminal misdeeds. Additionally, some argue that the seizures may trample upon the civil rights of motorists.
Vehicle forfeiture in Minnesota begins when a drunk driver is pulled over by officers. The law says that any drunk driver with at least two prior DWI convictions in the past 10 years can lose their vehicle. Additionally, even first time offenders can, in some cases, have their vehicles seized, provided that there are two or more aggravating factors at work in the DWI incident.
Assuming there is a subsequent conviction and the law permits forfeiture, law enforcement officials then impound the car and eventually put it up for auction, a process that can be quite lucrative to local departments. The police department responsible for making the arrest and the local district attorney’s office often split the proceeds, a tidy sum that goes towards additional drunk driving enforcement efforts.
A recent article in a Moorhead, MN newspaper discussed how the practice of vehicle forfeiture for repeat drunk driving offenders has been on the rise in recent years. Forfeiture appears to be increasing across over the state, but is especially booming business in Clay County, MN. Data shows that the percentage of forfeited property seized by law enforcement is increasingly made up of the vehicles of drunk drivers, a category that now accounts for 67 percent of all seized assets in the county, up from only 41 percent of seized property in 2011.
Local officials have thus far not been able to account for the dramatic rise in vehicle forfeitures, saying that policy has remained consistent that officers should attempt to confiscate whatever vehicles they are able to. Many complain that the recent push for enforcement has more to do with amassing lucrative assets and less to do with protecting the public.
Another criticism of the asset forfeiture is that the owners of vehicles used in drunk driving incidents can have their cars sold off without ever having done anything wrong. In Minnesota, innocent owners are allowed to file a claim arguing that they were not responsible for another person’s wrongful use of their car. However, this can be an expensive, complicated and lengthy fight and the burden of proof lies on the owner, not the government. Unless the car is worth a substantial sum it’s often not worth the effort to fight to keep the car, meaning many people who may be completely innocent must endure unjust forfeiture.
Source: “Vehicle confiscation often used in fight against drunken driving,” by Archie Ingersoll, published at JamestownSun.com.