Innocent owner of seized vehicle wins on appeal.

 
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Byline: Barbara L. Jones

At the same time as a vehicle forfeiture bill winds its way through the Legislature, the Minnesota Supreme Court stepped into the debate to declare part of the existing law unconstitutional.

A divided court said that Minn. Stat. sec. 169A.63, which governs vehicle forfeiture for a driving-while-impaired offense, violates due process as applied to an innocent owner/non-driver of the vehicle. It also said that the proper remedy is the return of the vehicle that was seized after the driver's arrest in August, 2015. The court upheld the constitutionality of the statute on its face and as applied to the non-owner driver of the vehicle.

The opinion in Olson v. One 1999 Lexus was written by Justice Paul Thissen. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Justice Anne McKeig concurred in part and dissented in part.

There are two significant take-aways from the case said the respondents' attorney, Daniel Koewler. One is that the standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 in Mathews v. Eldridge applies to procedural due process claims when the urgency of a prompt post-seizure hearing is the paramount question. "The other is the state can't hold innocent owners property hostage anymore," he said.

Koewler has a large DWI practice and said that about half his cases involve an innocent owner but many times the car is not worth the cost of pursuing the owner's rights. The Legislature's concern about the issue demonstrates that even if forfeiture is constitutional, it is not right, he said.

Assistant Scott County Attorney Todd Zettler said that the purpose of forfeiture is to protect public safety, which the court recognized in its analysis of the facial constitutionality of the statute and as applied to the driver. He also noted that the court found no sign of improper policing in the case.

Long process

It has been a long process for the respondents. The respondent-driver Megan Ashley Olson was arrested for her fourth DWI on Aug. 16, 2015. She was charged with two counts of felony first-degree DWI and the vehicle, a 1999 Lexus, was seized. Her mother, respondent-owner Helen Olson, is the registered owner of the vehicle.

On Oct. 7, 2015, respondents filed a civil complaint seeking judicial determination of the forfeiture and a trial was scheduled for Feb. 11, 2016. It was continued or rescheduled six times pending the outcome of her implied consent and criminal matters. On May 16, 2016, her driver's license revocation was upheld.

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