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Innocent Owner Defense

We recently blogged about Minnesota’s ability to forfeit a vehicle after certain offenses here. We discussed the procedure an owner must follow in attempting to recover a seized vehicle.[1] Part of a successful attempt may include proving an affirmative defense, such as the innocent owner defense. This is a popular defense for a vehicle owner to rely upon when they were not driving the vehicle at the time of the offense.

When an owner of a vehicle can “demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the 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 owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender” the owner may recover the vehicle after seizure.[2] In other words, the owner of the vehicle must prove[3] that he or she did not know (actual knowledge) or should not have known based on the history with the driver of the vehicle (constructive knowledge) that the offense leading to the forfeiture was going to be committed.

There is a caveat that goes to the issue of knowledge; if the driver of the vehicle was a family member or someone with whom the owner resides and the driver had three or more prior driving while impaired convictions, it is presumed the owner had knowledge that the driver would use the vehicle contrary to the law.[4] Presumptions are difficult to overcome. But if the owner of the vehicle “took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender,” the owner would be able to recover the vehicle.[5]

A successful innocent-owner-defense case from 2008[6] includes the following facts: the driver was the nephew of the vehicle’s owner; the owner did not give permission for his nephew to use the vehicle on the day the offense occurred, even though the nephew received permission in the past; and there was no evidence that the owner of the vehicle was aware the driver had previous DWI convictions as the owner merely knew that the driver had been in trouble in the past.

Compare that case to an unsuccessful innocent-owner-defense case.[7] These facts included: parents owning a vehicle that the son primarily drove; the parents knew the son got a DWI while in that very same vehicle; and the parents knew their son drove the vehicle while intoxicated even after the conviction. The parents’ insistence that driving while intoxicated “was probably not the best approach for his life in general” was not enough to prove reasonable steps were taken to prevent their son from driving.[8]

The cases above illustrate that the mere denial of knowledge is not enough to prove the innocent owner defense. One must actually present evidence that he or she was not privy to information that an offense may occur. The purpose of the statute is to enhance the public’s safety by keeping offenders from accessing vehicles with which they may drive intoxicated.[9] If an owner of a car knows that the person seeking to borrow a car has a history of driving while intoxicated, or is planning on drinking while borrowing the car, then the owner should exercise sound judgment and not lend his or her vehicle.

It is important to remember that the process may take months to play out, so even a successful use of the innocent owner defense does not mean you will have immediate use of your car. The best plan of action is to consider the responsibility that comes with lending your car to a friend, roommate, or family member. If someone is pulled over while driving your vehicle and the state seizes that car, understand your rights and be prepared to fight for your property.

For more information about vehicle forfeitures please contact Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC at 612-547-3199 or email ambroselegal@icloud.com for a free consultation.

Attorney Nathan Downing received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver. While there, he was on the Law Review. Nathan is a native Minnesotan and recently returned home to continue his legal career.

[1] When the procedure to challenge a forfeiture is not strictly followed, a resulting ruling in the vehicle owner’s favor will be vacated and the process will have to start over. See Garde v. One Ford Explorer XLT Motor, 662 N.W.2d 165, 167 (Minn. Ct. App. 2003).

[2] Minn. Stat. 169A.63 subd. 7(d) (2015).

[3] Clear and convincing is a standard that is higher than a preponderance of the evidence, which is used in most civil matters, and a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard used to convict defendants in a criminal proceeding.

[4] Minn. Stat. 169A.63 subd. 7(d) (2015).

[5] Id.

[6] Kubis v. 2002 Chevrolet Pickup, No. A08-0179 (Minn. Ct. App. 2008).

[7] Pruden v. One 2003 Jeep, No. A14-1313 (Minn. Ct. App. 2015).

[8] Id.

[9] Schug v. $9,916.50 in U.S. Currency, 669 N.W.2d 379, 384 (Minn. Ct. App. 2003).

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