Michigan law provides that drivers convicted of drunk driving can have their cars forfeited. This means that upon conviction the state can take the convicted drunk driver’s car. In those cases where the car was used without the permission or knowledge of the owner the “innocent owner” defense would apply. If successful this defense would keep the state from grabbing the car.
The Minnesota courts have significantly lessened the applicability of this defense.
According to the Newspaper.com, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently upheld the right of police to confiscate vehicles from owners who have done nothing wrong. The decision narrowed the applicability of an “innocent owner” defense in cases where a vehicle is jointly owned. The high court considered the case of David and Jean Margaret Laase whose then-brand new 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe was confiscated in 2006.
Although David Laase was the Tahoe’s primary driver, Jean Laase was driving the SUV alone on May 17, 2007 when she was pulled over and accused of drunk driving. Because Laase refused to submit to a breath test, the $40,000 vehicle was permanently confiscated as punishment for “second-degree criminal test refusal.”
The 4-3 majority on the court, led by Justice Lorie Gildea, concluded that it is sufficient for one owner to be guilty to nullify the innocent owner defense. It did so by construing the statute to mean that “all owners” must be innocent in order to block forfeiture.
The United States gets much of our forfeiture law from ancient English cases. Back in the old days of kings and queens all of the property in the kingdom was thought to be owned by the crown. If you lived back then, and you used property to commit a crime, then the crown had the right to take back that property. This was called forfeiture because by committing the crime you “forfeited” your possession of the property back to its true owner – the crown.
Forfeiture is often abused and is really just legalized extortion. Here is a video about a particularly terrible case of forfeiture. Although this is not a drunk driving case, the idea behind the video is still the same.