Minnesota's DWI Forfeiture Law Struck Down As Unconstitutional

Posted On April 02, 2018 Charles Ramsay

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals struck down a significant portion of Minnesota's DWI Vehicle-Forfeiture Law as unconstitutional, specifically concluding that it violates the due process rights of drivers and innocent owners alike. You can read the full order here, but that won't stop us from giving you our interpretation. We're proud of this victory -- after all, fighting forfeitures is part of what we do when we defend our clients -- but we also have some pretty good ideas of what this means for the future. 

Why This Law Is Unconstituitonal -- Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

But first, what the order actually says. Those who follow our blog may remember when we first convinced the judge in this case to strike down this law as unconstitutional. A little later, we went into a bit more detail about our thought process in attacking Minnesota's DWI forfeiture laws, and how we were using this challenge to win cases for our clients.

In this recent opinion, the Court of Appeals effectively agreed with our thought process, and concluded two things: 

1. Minnesota's current DWI forfeiture scheme does a great job of denying everyone the right to a prompt, meaningful hearing. That means that unlawfully forfeited vehicles can sit in an impound lot for weeks, months, or even years without anyone getting "their day in court."

2. The supposed "hardship relief" that the statute provides is about as real as a $3 bill (our words, not theirs). The Court of Appeals actually said that it was "inadequate," basically agreeing with the district court, who called it "illusory." 

That's two giant strikes against this law -- denying meaningful review while also outright ignoring the impact that an improper forfeiture would have on an innocent owner's ability to get to work, get their kids to school, or do anything in Minnesota that requires a vehicle. 

The Future of DWI Vehicle Forfeitures

So what does this mean for the future? Two thoughts: first, this may not be the last word. The trial judge and the Court of Appeals both concluded that this law is unconstitutional, but that may not be the last word. The State of Minnesota could try to bring this case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, and ask them to weigh in. So there may be more fighting left to do before this decision is truly final.

But just as important is the impact this will have on all those cars and trucks currently sitting in impound lots across Minnesota, and all the vehicles that get seized from this day forward. This opinion struck down the law, but didn't completely eliminate all DWI vehicle forfeitures. That question was left for another day, when the Court said the following: 




That phrase "we decline to determine . . ." is legal-speak for "we're only going to decide the case that's right in front of us, and leave any unanswered questions for another day." In other words, the Court isn't going to guess as to what it would take to make this law constitutional . . . they only know that what they are looking at isn't. 

Interestingly, the Minnesota legislature is already looking at a complete do-over regarding these types of forfeiture laws -- in fact, we were recently invited to testify regarding this and other glaring errors in the current laws. Hopefully, the legislature will take the Court's open-ended conclusion as an invitation to fix the current law and avoid further court challenges down the road. 

But for now, the time is ripe for competent defense attorneys to push hard to get seized vehicles returned to their owners. That's what lead us to today's victory, and we're certainly not planning on slowing down now. 

Charles Ramsay