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House moves to give innocent owners ‘their day in court’

Say you co-own a car with another person who gets convicted of driving while intoxicated and police seize the vehicle. Currently in Minnesota, you don’t have standing to ask to get the car back.

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) said her “small, narrow” bill would allow you to “at least petition in front of a court.”

The House passed HF389/SF151* 128-0 Wednesday. The Senate, where Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchison) is the sponsor, passed the bill 65-0 March 16. The bill now goes to Gov. Mark Dayton.

A seized, co-owned vehicle “may be the only mode of transportation for a family or spouse who did not know their vehicle would be used unlawfully,” O’Neill said in a news release after Wednesday’s vote on the House Floor.

So-called “innocent owners” would have to offer “clear and convincing evidence” that they didn’t know the vehicle would be used unlawfully or that they took steps to prevent that from happening.

Petitioning a court would not be an option when an offender has three or more impaired driving convictions. In that case, the court would presume the innocent owner knows of illegal use of the vehicle.

WATCH Wednesday's House Floor session 

O’Neill said on the House Floor that her bill is in response to a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court opinion that found the “‘innocent owner defense’ … does not apply in a case of joint ownership of a vehicle if one of the joint owners is also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle.”

In a committee hearing last month, Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) told of his struggle as an attorney to help a client get her impounded car back from authorities who seized it when her now ex-boyfriend was driving it. “This is insane,” Lesch said. “I could not believe we created a system like that.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) called the bill “a good fix,” but said the state’s civil-forfeiture law still needs more work, such as removing a “conflict of interest” by which law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices receive a piece of the proceeds from the sale of seized property.

“I think it’s very wrong for law enforcement to be taking citizens’ property and to be getting a cut of the action when they do,” Liebling said. 

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