You Can Drink With the Offender and Still Be an Innocent Owner

The mere fact that you were drinking with the alleged offender and a passenger in the vehicle does not necessarily mean that you are not an innocent owner for purposes of getting your vehicle back.

If your vehicle was seized after it was used by another driver in the commission of a certain crime, you have the right to get it back. The most common argument is that you are an “innocent owner”. To succeed in raising this defense, the owner must prove by clear and convincing evidence – a high burden – that you did not have actual or construction knowledge that the vehicle would be used in a manner contrary to law – i.e. a DWI – or you took reasonable steps to prevent the use of the vehicle by the alleged offender. This is a fact specific inquiry. But, case law does shed some light on an common fact pattern that is beneficial to innocent owners.

The common fact pattern is when the owner and alleged offender are out together and consumed alcohol. Is this owner still an “innocent owner” who can get their car back? In Woodruff v. 2008 Mercedes, the Minnesota Court Appeals said yes – simply consuming alcohol with the alleged offender and even being the passenger does not amount to actual or construction knowledge that the alleged offender would drive your vehicle with a BAC level above .08.

In Woodruff, the owner and alleged offender attended a Twins game together. According to the testimony, both parties consumed three drinks over the next 4-5 hours and were generally in each other’s presence. The owner testified that she did not believe that she or the alleged offender were intoxicated and she testified that the alleged offender showed no signs of intoxication. On the drive home, the alleged offender was stopped and arrested for DWI.

The Court rejected the State’s contention that the owner necessarily had to have had the requisite actual or construction knowledge because she witnessed the alleged offender drinking or because she was a passenger in the vehicle. The Court disagreed because the laws prohibit driving while under the influence, not driving after consuming any amount of alcohol. And as the Court stated, it is a factual question whether the owner had the requisite knowledge.

This is the right decision. And a decision future innocent owners should be looking to in the future. Still, it is a fact question and a district court could rule differently depending on how it views the facts of your case. That is why it is imperative that you hire a Minnesota vehicle forfeiture attorney to help you present and argue your innocent owner defense.