Court upholds Minnesota’s ‘drive drunk and lose your car’ law

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today upheld a state law that allows a city or county to seize and sell an automobile if the person driving it was driving drunk.

The court ruled in the case of Matthew Nielsen, who was arrested and charged with driving under the influence when a law enforcement officer saw him driving the wrong way on a one-way street. His blood alcohol level was .282, well over the legal limit.

In seizing the car, the county cited a state law allowing a county to sell a car, distributing 70 percent of the proceeds to the law enforcement agency’s operating fund, and 30 percent to the prosecutor’s office. But Nielsen cited another state law that exempts some cars of a certain value from forfeiture, or at least gives the owner a share of the proceeds at sale.

Today, however, the Supreme Court said the latter law does not apply when a motor vehicle is subject to DWI forfeiture. The Court also said the law does not violate the Minnesota Constitution, which says “areasonable amount of property shall be exempt from seizure or sale for the payment of any debt or liability.”

“A person who voluntarily uses a motor vehicle to commit a designated DWI offense or a person who has actual or constructive knowledge that his or her motor vehicle is being used in a manner contrary to law and fails to take reasonable steps to prevent such use “‘agrees to all the consequences arising’ from this conduct and ‘the laws applicable’ to the conduct,” Justice Wilhelmina Wright wrote in today’s decision, to which Justice Alan Page dissented, arguing seizing and selling the car violates the state constitution.

And while agreeing with the ruling, Justice G. Barry Anderson said the forfeiture law in Minnesota creates a conflict of interest for law enforcement agencies, saying the decision to seize someone’s car “may or may not be informed by agency budget considerations.” There is no check on the authority of law enforcement agencies’ decisions to seize property, Anderson said.

This isn’t the last word on vehicle forfeiture in Minnesota, however.

Last week a homeless man filed a federal lawsuit alleging Saint Paul violated his constitutional rights when it seized — and sold — his car at police auction because he didn’t pay towing and impound fees.

(Here’s a video of the arguments in the Nielsen case)

  • Angie

    There are some stupid and irresponsible
    person out-there driving drunk, but that doesn’t mean that selling or
    seized his/her vehicle is a solving issue for our society. What if,
    we legalizing all laws, for exp, says that any person is “committing
    racism” against a foreign military spouses will be seizing his/her
    saving account? Just like for exp, if we legalizing all welfare
    program and enforcing everyone go out and get a job!!

  • Jack

    Impounding and selling someone’s vehicle sounds like a border patrol solution not a community issue. The pendulum has swung too far… time to back this approach up and find a better way.

    • The other Jack

      Perhaps we could go the route of one of the European countries and just ban them from driving for life. Of course, with the number of folks driving on revoked licenses in the US, I’m not sure how well that would work.

      At least taking the vehicle keeps them technically off the road for a while.

      • Diane Hull

        Just as an aside — I recall from a conversation with a Norwegian relative that licenses are very expensive in Norway. In Minnesota the cost is minimal — $25? $35?

        In Norway the cost was more than $1,000 — and this was back in the mid 80′s. Who knows what the cost is now. And the getting the license wasn’t just a written and road test, but you also had to pass a mechanical test (Norwegian winters and mountain roads made it necessary that you could deal with most mechanical issues). It took months to clear all the hurdles.

        Another thing about driving in Norway — you’re vehicle had to be in perfect condition — and not able to pass an emission test (remember those?). My cousin was taking pictures of all the wrecks she saw in parking lots — body damage, rust, duck tape fixes, plastic covered broken windows. She said no one who had never seen it would believe her unless she could show them all the pictures.

        • Confused

          In Minnesota, they can seize your property for poaching animals. Vehicles, boats, atv, firearms, anything you are using during the crime. I think driving under the influence is a great deal more serious then poaching and can change lives in an instant. What value do we put on life, when we try to protect the people who are endangering our loved ones, every time they get behind the wheel after drinking.