Court: Police can keep cars of repeat drunk drivers

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today that if you drive drunk, the authorities can seize your car and keep it.

The court ruled in the case of Matthew Nielsen, who was stopped by Minneapolis police in April 2011. He pleaded guilty to DWI, his fourth in two years.

The department seized the car but Nielsen claims under the Minnesota Constitution , “the state cannot acquire his car through forfeiture or that if it can, it must pay him the value of the forfeited car.”

But the Minnesota Legislature has exempted some property from attachment, garnishment, or sale on any final process, issued from any court.

Bibles, for example. And some cars…


One motor vehicle to the extent of a value not exceeding $2,000; or one motor vehicle to the extent of a value not exceeding $20,000 that has been modified, at a cost of not less than $1,500, to accommodate the physical disability making a disabled person eligible for a certificate authorized by section

But in its decision today, the Court of Appeals ruled the drunk driving forfeiture of property is not covered by the above statute, and said the Legislature did not intend to protect the loss of vehicles belonging to repeat drunk drivers…


It provides that a drunk driver’s motor vehicle is subject to forfeiture when it is used to commit a designated offense; it does not limit forfeiture to a vehicle of any minimum value and expressly allows for forfeiture of motor vehicles that are valued even below $500; it immediately vests “[a]ll right, title, and interest” in the vehicle subject to forfeiture “in the appropriate agency,” and then it requires the forfeiting agency either to keep and use the vehicle or to use “70 percent of the proceeds” in its DWI-related operations and distribute the remaining “30 percent of the . . . proceeds” to the prosecuting authority for prosecutorial purposes.

For at least two reasons, the two sections cannot be read as Nielsen argues. First, the forfeiture statute’s express allowance for forfeiture of even a $500 car is meaningless if the exemption statute prohibits forfeitures of vehicles valued below $4,400. Second, if Nielsen is correct that the exemption statute allows the state to take a car by forfeiture but requires the state to then reimburse the owner the after-sale exemption amount up to $4,400, then the forfeiture statute’s requirement that the forfeiture sale proceeds be divided exactly 70-30 between the acting law-enforcement and prosecutorial agencies could never be followed.

Here’s the full decision.

  • jon

    This is interesting to me not because of the courts finding but because of the excerpt from the link above “Household furniture, household appliances, phonographs, radio and television receivers of the debtor and the debtor’s family, not exceeding $4,500 in value.”

    In looking for the intent of the legislature in this particular statement I find it hard to get past the word “phonographs” which leads me to believe that it was written 15-30 years back… but if the number $4,500 hasn’t changed in 15-30 years, then inflation hasn’t been accounted for.

    Same goes for the 7th amendment which allows the courts to settle disputes of $20 or more… twenty dollars back in the late 1700’s is a heck of a lot more then it is now, but the law remains the same.

    Every bit of legislation should have an expiration date, and should either need to be re-visited by the legislature or just expire, none of this legal build up of 100’s of years of laws that we all have to know and follow.

  • mike

    Jon- section 550.37 subdivision 4a provides for inflation of the amounts provided in that section. In the above mentioned case, the automobile exemption was for statutorily set for $2000, but raised by the court to $4400 to account for inflation.

  • David

    Of course, the legislature could (and considering recent forfeiture abuses maybe should) make a law that prevents the seizing of all property for criminal offenses.