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)