It’s In Your Court: It’s In Your Court: Did you know your vehicle could be forfeited?


Judge Steve Halsey

During this legislative session there have been hearings on a bill which appears to be intended to grant relief to motor vehicle owners whose vehicles may be forfeited to law enforcement for certain crimes committed by drivers of those vehicles. I cannot ethically comment on the proposed legislation, but I would like to summarize those laws that currently allow forfeiture as I do believe the public, for the most part, is unaware of those laws and the risks when they or someone in their household violates those laws.

Currently, a motor vehicle may be forfeited when the driver is arrested (not necessarily convicted) of the following offenses:

• Fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle (a very common occurrence) and endangering life or property;

• Second degree driving while impaired or with blood alcohol concentration over .08;

• Vehicles used in drive-by shootings; and 

• Vehicles used as a conveyance for controlled substance worth more than $100.

In addition to motor vehicles, the following items of personal property may be forfeited if found in the proximity of controlled substances or equipment used in their manufacture or distribution; or on the person arrested:

• Firearms, ammunition, and firearm accessories;

• Computers and smart phones; and

• Money and precious metals in proximity to the controlled substances.

The proceedings for seizure may occur in two ways: (a) administrative forfeiture or (b) judicial forfeiture. In an administrative forfeiture the law enforcement agency making the arrest takes possession of the motor vehicle, money or firearms and sends notice of the seizure to the record owner. The record owner (claimant) then has 60 days to file a claim in conciliation court (if vehicle or property worth $15,000 or less) or district court seeking to nullify the forfeiture and obtain return of the vehicle.

In the judicial forfeiture proceedings, a complaint is filed by the county attorney against the property itself as the defendant. This proceeding applies to property used or intended to commit a “designated offense” and all proceeds of a designated offenses. The following are some of the “designated offenses:”

• Display, cause, or permit to be displayed, or have in possession, any fictitious or fraudulently altered driver’s license or Minnesota identification card;

• Lending a person’s driver’s license or Minnesota identification card to any other person or knowingly permit the use thereof by another; 

• Murder in the first, second and third degree;

• Criminal vehicular homicide;

• Assault in the first, second and third degree; 

• Sex trafficking and prostitution; and 

• Certain criminal sexual conduct crimes. 

The record owner of a motor vehicle that is seized may obtain its return pending the outcome of the forfeiture proceeding by either filing a bond for the value of the property or filing the certificate of title (so the vehicle cannot be sold and title transferred).

In these proceedings, generally the law enforcement agency has the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the motor vehicle was used in the commission of a designated offenses. However, an “innocent owner” claiming they did not permit the use of the vehicle or were not aware of the driver’s chemical dependency history has the burden of proof. 

If the property is sold the proceeds are distributed as follows: 

• Satisfy valid liens and sale expenses;

• Pay court-ordered restitution;

• 70 percent to law enforcement agency;

• 20 percent to the prosecuting attorney; and 

• 10 percent to the state general fund. 

In summary, if you have knowledge that your spouse or teenage child has a drug or alcohol abuse history and you permit them to use your motor vehicle, you risk the loss of your vehicle if they commit a designated criminal offenses while operating the vehicle. Ponder seriously whether letting your teenager drive your expensive car with his or her friends until after midnight is a good financial decision. 

 

— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at www.minnesotafamilylawissues.blogspot.com.

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