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Minnesota Police and Prosecutors: Stop Stealing Vehicles

by Ethan P Meaney on Jun. 11, 2014

Criminal DUI-DWI 

Summary: Minnesota is one of many states that have laws giving the police and prosecutors the power to seize and ultimately forfeit a vehicle used by a repeat offender to commit a DWI. At first, this sounds like a reasonable, just goal.

Minnesota is one of many states that have laws giving the police and prosecutors the power to seize and ultimately forfeit a vehicle used by a repeat offender to commit a DWI. At first, this sounds like a reasonable, just goal. After all, the public must be protected from repeat offenders by taking away their means to put others at risk. However, there is new technology available in Minnesota that protects the public even better than forfeiture can: Ignition Interlock Devices (IID’s). This is a call to the Minnesota State Legislature to modify our existing DWI vehicle forfeiture laws in a way that will INCREASE public safety without needing to steal vehicles from individual offenders, innocent non-offender owners, and families.

First of all, let’s examine the circumstances that allow law enforcement and prosecutors to take vehicles away. Under current law (Minn.Stat. 169A.63), a vehicle may be forfeited if the offender is:

1. Convicted of a Second Degree DWI by having a combination of two of these factors: prior impaired driving offense within ten years (each prior within ten counts separately), testing at .20 or more, or having a child in the vehicle under the age of 16;

2. Convicted of a Second Degree Test Refusal by committing refusal to submit to testing while having one or more prior impaired driving offenses within ten years or having a child in the vehicle under the age of 16;

3. Convicted of a First Degree Felony DWI or Test Refusal (this happens if the person has three prior impaired driving incidents within ten years of the new offense or if the person has ever been convicted in their lifetime of a felony-level DWI or Criminal Vehicular Operation/Homicide);

4. Facing an impaired driving-related loss of license within ten years of two prior impaired driving incidents;

5. Convicted of a DWI or Test Refusal while the offender’s license is cancelled as inimical to public safety (this happens when a person has four DWI offenses in their lifetime over any span or if the offender has a third DWI offense within ten years of having their license reinstated after getting two DWI offenses within five years of each other); or

6. Convicted of a DWI or Test Refusal while the offender has a restriction on their driver’s license that forbids the use or possession of alcohol or controlled substances (this happens when a person whose license was cancelled as inimical to public safety fulfills the DMV requirements to get valid again).

While most of these categories are aimed at taking away vehicles from repeat offenders, it is important to realize that category 1 or 2 above can include a first time offender. For example, if a person refuses to submit to testing and had a child in the vehicle at the time of driving, or if a person tests at .20 or more and had a child in the vehicle at the time of driving. It is also important to note that the law allows the police and prosecutors to forfeit a vehicle even if the vehicle did not legally belong to the offender. They only need to prove that the offender was legally entitled to use, possess, or control the vehicle, without regard to whether the offender is even on the vehicle title. If a vehicle is jointly owned by an offender and someone else, the non-offender’s interest also is forfeited by law.

There can be no doubt that Minnesota’s DWI forfeiture law is harsh, as it was designed to be. However, consideration must be given to the rights of the individuals who are losing their personal property in these situations. According to the federal and state Constitutions, the government must balance the rights of the individual against the interests of the public to be safe. In its pursuit of public safety, the government must use the least punitive means to achieve that goal. This is where the current law in Minnesota fails. The law should be modified to allow for the return of vehicles to offenders and non-offending owners if they have an IID installed in the vehicle under the DMV’s Ignition Interlock Program. This solution protects the public AND protects the individual owner’s property interests.

Maybe Constitutional “technicalities” don’t bother you when it comes to DWI offenders (they should, but that is a topic for an entire other article). Well, aside from the Constitutional problems in Minnesota, the current law actually makes no sense when considered as a whole. In every single forfeiture category listed above, the offender will have their license revoked or cancelled. For those who have their license revoked, they will only be able to drive during the revocation period if they drive a vehicle equipped with an IID. For those who have their license cancelled, they will never be able to drive for the rest of their lives until they prove at least 3-6 years of continuous sobriety to the DMV (depending on number of previous license cancellations).

Here is where the real insanity begins. Guess how the DMV requires a cancelled offender to prove sobriety? By participating in the Ignition Interlock program and performing at least 30 ignition starts per month for at least three years (up to six years for repeat cancelled offenders). If the police and prosecutors are taking away a cancelled offender’s vehicle immediately upon arrest, how can that offender ever comply with the DMV requirement of proving sobriety with an IID? The cancelled offender must purchase a whole new vehicle. One law takes away a vehicle while another law requires the offender to obtain a vehicle.

The Ignition Interlock program is already expensive enough without forcing someone to buy an entirely different vehicle. An individual must prepay the $680 reinstatement fee to the DMV, pay approximately $150 to have the IID installed, and obtain prepaid auto insurance on the vehicle being used for the program. It actually becomes a cheaper option for the cancelled offender to obtain a new “beater” vehicle and drive it illegally, which many people feel they need to do to stay employed and provide for their families. Many of these people get caught and the subsequent time and resources used to convict, supervise and/or jail them is astronomical. The system is broken, and it can be easily fixed. Many of these repeat offenders would be able to afford the Ignition Interlock program if they didn’t have to go out and buy a whole new vehicle first. Stop stealing vehicles when it isn’t necessary anymore to protect the public.

Finally, the most powerful opponents of drunk driving agree that IID’s prevent drunk driving and increase public safety. MADD has stated that less than 1% of participants in an Ignition Interlock program reoffend, which is phenomenal. See http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/state-stats/Minnesota.html. It is not often that a DWI defense attorney can cite to MADD in support of something, but this is an easy example. Heck, even our own State Representatives encourage individuals to participate in the Ignition Interlock program: a law passed a couple of years ago allows a judge to ignore the mandatory minimum jail penalties for repeat offenders if the judge makes it a condition of probation that the offender only drive vehicles equipped with an IID. See Minn.Stat. 169A.275, subd. 7. Many offenders whose vehicles are stolen by the police cannot afford to go out and buy a new vehicle to give them the chance to avoid that mandatory jail time–they simply must serve the time. How fair is that? If our State Representative want to encourage repeat offenders to participate in the Ignition Interlock program, then stop allowing the police and prosecutors to steal vehicles away from these offenders.

Minnesota’s current law denies repeat offenders (and some first time offenders) with the means to participate in the Ignition Interlock program by allowing the police and prosecutors to steal the vehicle upon arrest. While “steal” may sound like a strong word, what other word can describe this behavior given the Constitutional issues involved, the inconsistent legal requirements from the DMV, and the safety reality of vehicles equipped with IID’s? It’s time for the Minnesota State Legislature to update this arcane law and STOP law enforcement from unnecessarily stealing vehicles from offenders. The public is better served by participation in the Ignition Interlock program, which gives repeat offenders the means to safely continue working, attending treatment/AA, and complying with other court orders. It provides a positive incentive to repeat offenders to maintain sobriety while avoiding the devastating financial loss of forfeiting their vehicle. And don’t forget, it allows innocent non-offenders (usually spouses or parents) a means to keep their vehicles as well.

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