Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a much-needed decision that clarifies the scope of Minnesota’s DWI Vehicle Forfeiture law. In the case of Laura Patino v. One 2007 Chevrolet, the Court took full advantage of the opportunity to correct previous case law that had led to far too many erroneous forfeitures, holding that when a vehicle is seized for committing a forfeitable offense, but the driver is never convicted of that offense, they have every right to get their vehicle back.
The prior law was laid out in the case of Mastakoski v. 2003 Dodge Durango, 738 N.W.2d 411 (Minn. App. 2007). That case, in a nutshell, stood for the proposition that if the police seize a vehicle after someone commits a “designated offense,” they get to keep the vehicle even if the person is never convicted of that “designated offense.” After finely parsing the language of Minn. Stat. §169A.63 (the DWI Forfeiture Statute), the Mastakoski court concluded that just being arrested and charged for a “designated offense” is enough to support a vehicle forfeiture, and pleading guilty to an offense other than the originally charged “designated offense” would not save the vehicle from forfeiture.
If that decision seems counter-intuitive to you, you’re right. You’d think that if the police seize your vehicle for second degree DWI, and you (or whoever was driving the vehicle) is never convicted of second degree DWI, you should get your vehicle back . . . right? Well, that’s exactly what the Patino court determined today. The Court relied upon a portion of the forfeiture statute that went ignored by the Mastakoski court, Minn. Stat. §169A.63, subd. 9(f). And that section makes it clear that a person does need to be convicted of a “designated offense” before the state can finally and forever seize their vehicle.
This ruling will have an immediate impact on how both forfeiture cases are handled and also how underlying criminal cases are handled. It also emphasizes how important it is to have an experienced attorney handle both the criminal and the civil forfeiture case - both cases provide opportunities to get your vehicle back from the state. Above all, the Patino case indicates that some semblance of sanity is returning to our DWI Vehicle Forfeiture Law, and that in the future we can hope for less draconian enforcement of this especially harsh law.
UPDATE (April 3, 2012): DWI Automobile Forfeiture Case Set for Oral Argument.
UPDATE (February 12, 2012): The Minnesota Supreme Court has granted the motions of the MSCJ and MACDL to file an amicus curiae brief. See Supreme Court Grants Amicus Status in DWI Forfeiture Case.
UPDATE (January 26, 2012): The Minnesota Supreme Court has accepted review of this case. See Supreme Court to Review Minnesota's DWI Forfeiture Statute.