What is the Innocent Owner Forfeiture Defense?
Vehicle forfeiture occurs when a vehicle is used to commit a criminal act, such as driving while intoxicated (DWI). According to Minnesota Statute § 169A.63, in certain DWI cases, the police have the authority to seize and forfeit the vehicle used to commit the criminal act. If the owner does not recover their vehicle, the police have the right to sell it and keep the profits.
Within this last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided a case about vehicle forfeiture that changed the landscape of Minnesota law for innocent owners. An innocent owner is someone who owns the vehicle that was forfeited due to a DWI arrest, but was not the individual driving the vehicle upon arrest.
In March of 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in Olson v. One 1999 Lexus that Minnesota Statute §169A.63 was constitutional on its face and as applied to the driver. However, the court also ruled that Minn. Stat. § 169A.63 is unconstitutional towards an innocent owner when there was an 18-month delay before the innocent owner could have a forfeiture hearing and demand the vehicle back. In this case, a mother owned a vehicle that her daughter was driving when her daughter was arrested for a DWI. The mother, an innocent owner, wanted her forfeited vehicle back. Originally, the Court told her she could not challenge the forfeiture of the vehicle until her daughter’s DWI criminal charges were resolved. The mother waited 18 months for the criminal charges to be resolved. Her vehicle remained forfeited for the entirety of those 18 months.
On review, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to make the mother wait 18 months. Due process was denied as a result of the 18-month delay between the seizure of her property and the hearing on demand for judicial determination, when she was able to raise the innocent-owner defense. Therefore, although the statute is constitutional on its face, it was unconstitutional as applied when prompt judicial review of the forfeiture was denied in this case. The delay here did not necessarily violate the driver’s rights, but it did deprive the innocent owner of due process.
Because of this case, there is now precedent set in Minnesota that innocent owners have the constitutional right to demand a hearing to try and get their forfeited vehicle back before the criminal proceedings of a related DWI case have finished.