According to Minnesota statutes, law enforcement officers are given the authority to permanently seize any vehicle used in the commission of DWI, or driving under the influence.
But what happens when a DWI offender is arrested for DWI and the police officer tries to seize a vehicle that belongs to someone else? An individual, for example, may commit DWI in a vehicle that is owned by a friend or family member. Is it possible for the vehicle owner to get his or her vehicle back? The answer is yes.
In Minnesota DWI vehicle forfeitures, a common issue that arises is the “innocent owner defense.” This DWI defense applies when law enforcement initiates administrative vehicle forfeiture of a vehicle that is owned by a third party who did not commit the DWI offense.
The vehicle owner, as defined by Minnesota statute, is an individual who is legally entitled to the control, use, and possession of a vehicle, including a vehicle lessee if the lease agreement has a term of at least 180 days. It is also assumed that the name on the vehicle’s title is the vehicle’s rightful owner. In order for the innocent owner defense to apply, the vehicle’s title owner must not be the DWI offender.
Unfortunately, the innocent vehicle owner does not have an immediate right to their vehicle. The owner must challenge the forfeiture in court and prove that the he or she was innocent through clear and convincing evidence – unless the police officer agrees to return the vehicle to the innocent owner from the beginning. If not, then the innocent vehicle owner must bear the burden of proof that he or she was not involved in the crime and did not know that the family member or friend was acting illegally at the time of the suspected DWI incident.
If the owner is successful at proving their innocence to the judge, then the vehicle may be returned – even if the driver is convicted of DWI. If not, then the state is entitled to keep the vehicle and sell it at an auction.
It must be noted that if the alleged DWI offender is a friend or relative with at least three prior DWI convictions, then it is assumed that the owner knows that any vehicle use by the offender is against the law, regardless of the circumstances. In such a case, the owner must be able to prove that reasonable steps were taken to prevent the offender from using the vehicle.
In the case of a vehicle with joint owners (such as husband and wife) the innocent vehicle owner cannot use the innocent owner defense.
Drug-Related Vehicle Forfeitures
In cases involving controlled substances, vehicles and other properties may also be seized, as the law involving DWIs is rather similar. A different set of statutes, however, applies to forfeitures involving controlled substances, and so it would be best to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.