The innocent owner defense: What do forfeiture laws have to do with marriage? Imagine that your husband or wife is struggling with alcohol addiction. Your spouse has been sober for an encouraging length of time. But then one day you get a call. A slip; and a DWI arrest of your spouse.
Now the police seize your $40,000 car – the one he or she was driving at the time – for administrative forfeiture. That doesn’t feel right, does it?
Could it be the last straw that stresses and breaks a struggling relationship; leading to another failed marriage?
The 2017 innocent owner law
Effective August 1, 2017, as an innocent owner you can challenge the forfeiture of your vehicle; and assert the “innocent owner defense.” And now, you can even where your spouse was the DWI driver.
The 2017 law, amended Minnesota Statutes Section 169A.63, subdivision 7. And it effectively overruled a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court case, Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 776 N.W.2d 431 (Minn. 2009).
In that case, the court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), did not apply if one of the joint owners was also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle. (See our blog article: A Greater Evil: The Moral Peril of Minnesota Asset Forfeiture Laws.)
In that case, the court’s majority ruled that all joint owners of a motor vehicle must be innocent; for any owner to assert an innocent owner defense in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).
Spouses, and beyond
Most innocent co-owners may be spouses. But the law in this area goes beyond spouses. It applies to all “family or household members” of the offender who are co-owners.
The innocent owner definition of “family or household member” is broad, and includes:
- a parent, stepparent, or guardian;
- persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption as
- brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, first cousin, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, grandparent, great-grandparent, great-uncle, great-aunt; and
- persons residing together or
- persons who regularly associate and communicate with one another outside of a workplace setting.
Who is an “owner” under the forfeiture statute?
The innocent owner defense statute defines “owner” as:
“a person legally entitled to possession, use, and control of a motor vehicle, including a lessee of a motor vehicle if the lease agreement has a term of 180 days or more.”Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d)
The law creates a rebuttable presumption that: “a person registered as the owner of a motor vehicle according to the records of the Department of Public Safety is the legal owner.”
Note that a car title is only prima facie evidence of ownership. In other words, it creates a rebuttable presumption, not conclusive proof. And you can prove ownership by other evidence as well.
What is the innocent owner defense?
Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 169A.63, subdivision 7 “Limitations on vehicle forfeiture.” reads:
“(d) A motor vehicle is not subject to forfeiture under this section if any of its owners who petition the court can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioning 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 petitioning owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.
If the offender is a family or household member of any of the owners who petition the court and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions, the petitioning 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:Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 169A.63, subdivision 7
(1) section 171.24 (violations; driving without valid license);
(2) section 169.791 (criminal penalty for 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).”
Problems of proof
Under the forfeiture statute, the burden of proof is on the owner petitioning to get their car back. And this includes the “innocent owner.” So the innocent owner must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” either that:
- she “did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be operated in any manner contrary to law” or
- that he or she “took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.”
“Constructive knowledge” is a legal term.
“Constructive” means circumstantial evidence supporting an inference of “knowledge.”
It may refer to the list that follows, for “family or household members” who are “presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.”
Though seemingly ambiguous, that last phrase refers to past “vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.”
But this presumption is rebuttable. And so it does not change the burden of proof, already upon the owner asserting the innocent owner defense.
In other words, the burden is on the owner asserting lack of knowledge that he or she did not know.
Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis DWI Defense Lawyer who regularly represents people in forfeiture cases.
Should Minnesota laws be anti-marriage? For another example, see our article: How to Drop a No Contact Order in Minnesota.