Innocent Owner Defense in Minnesota

A vehicle subject to forfeiture following a DWI must be returned to an innocent owner under specific circumstances. Effective January 1, 2022, this innocent owner defense will be spelled out in the statute and should – in theory – make this process more accessible for the owner. There is a strict procedure to follow, and certain pieces of proof must be offered in many situations, in order for this defense to succeed.

Who Can Use the Innocent Owner Defense?

First, it’s important to know exactly who can even use the innocent owner defense in getting back their vehicle. This person is known as the asserting person, which is “a person, other than the driver alleged to have committed a designated offense, claiming an ownership interest in a vehicle that has been seized or restrained under this section.” This could be a co-owner of the vehicle, the parent of the child who allegedly committed a crime who actually owns the vehicle, or even a friend who let someone borrow their vehicle.

How Can the Asserting Person Get Their Car Returned?

The asserting person raises this defense by notifying the prosecutor’s office in writing within 60 days of the service of the notice of seizure. Once this happens, the prosecutor’s office has two options. They must either release the vehicle to the asserting person or, within 30 days, file a complaint with the court to pursue the forfeiture of the vehicle still. This complaint may be filed in either district court or conciliation court. Typically, conciliation court is utilized when the vehicle’s value is less than $15,000 because it is a more streamlined option. This complaint, of course, must be served on the innocent owner and any other registered owners of the vehicle.

Once a complaint is filed, a hearing shall — to the extent practicable (which creates considerable leeway to ignore this rule, frankly) — be held within 30 days. An unnecessary delay can create a long list of due process violation issues, but, unfortunately, delays can still be expected.

What to Expect from the Innocent Owner Hearing

At the hearing, the prosecutor carries the initial burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the seizure of the vehicle was lawful and (2) certify that the prosecutor has filed, or intends to file, charges against the driver for a designated offense. The asserting person, meanwhile, must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they (1) have an actual ownership interest in the subject vehicle and (2) did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be used or operated in any manner contrary to the law or that they took reasonable steps to prevent the use of the vehicle by the alleged offender.

The vehicle will remain forfeited if the prosecutor carries his/her burden and the innocent owner is unsuccessful with their innocent owner defense. The Court shall order the return of the vehicle if either the State cannot meet its burden or the innocent owner defense is successful. Even when this happens, the innocent owner is still required to pay the reasonable costs of towing, seizure, and storage incurred prior to the innocent owner noticing the prosecutor of his/her intent to raise the innocent owner defense. If the owner neglects to get the returned vehicle for more than two weeks, additional costs of storage can be added.

Contact an Experienced Minnesota Forfeiture Attorney

As you can see, while the concept of an innocent owner defense is needed and important, when challenged, it can lead to a lot fact-intense analysis. It is critical to know how to raise this defense and what facts are important to succeed. Having an experienced forfeiture attorney on hand, like the ones at North Star Criminal Defense, can determine whether you will be getting your vehicle back. With so much at stake and the speed at which complaints must be filed after the underlying incident, contacting us right away is the first and smart move when trying to raise the innocent owner defense.