The law can seem odd. Earlier this month, a 1999 Lexus (the one carrying Minnesota license plate 851LDV and VIN JT6HF10U6X0079461, to be specific) filed an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Confused? Let us explain.
For the most part, courts exercise what’s called in personam jurisdiction, or their power over people or organizations. However, there is a concept called in rem jurisdiction, which is power that a court has over a piece of property. When a case is based on in rem jurisdiction, the title of the case usually includes a description of the property. Thus, you have some famous cases (to lawyers, at least) such as United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123 (1973) and United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, 86 F.2d 737 (2d Cir. 1936). They can sound pretty silly. In Minnesota, like for federal cases, lawsuits over forfeitures are titled (Name of Person Suing) vs. (Name of Property). The property, though it typically belongs to a person or organization, is the party. That’s how we end up with Megan Ashley Olson, et al. vs. One 1999 Lexus MN License Plate No. 851LDV VIN: JT6HF10U6X0079461, Minnesota appellate file number A17-1083, currently pending briefing in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
We’re not highlighting this case just because it’s a chuckle-worthy name, though.
One of the many consequences that can result from a DWI arrest, particularly when the person arrested has prior offenses, is that the government will try to forfeit the vehicle with which the DWI was allegedly committed. What often happens is that the forfeiture will be handled administratively, meaning all that happens is that the interested parties will get a piece of paper providing notice of the government’s intent to forfeit the property, and unless someone files a court case to challenge the impending forfeiture, the property will be gone. All the way back in August of 2015, Ms. Olson was arrested for felony DWI because she had three prior DWI convictions within the previous ten years. Because she had those prior convictions, the Shakopee Police Department seized the car she was driving (which belonged to her mother) and served notice on Ms. Olson and her mother that it intended to forfeit the vehicle.
Represented by the highly-regarded Chuck Ramsay and Daniel Koewler at Ramsay Law Firm in Roseville, who focus their practice on DWI and DWI-related cases, Ms. Olson and her mother jointly filed a lawsuit opposing the forfeiture. One of the many defenses to the forfeiture that they raised was that the DWI forfeiture statute is unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide due process to person claiming the vehicle. They moved for summary judgment and, in May, Judge Christian S. Wilton of Scott County District Court granted the motion. The car, represented by the, Scott County Attorney’s Office, has appealed. While no one knows how this fight will ultimately turn out, for now there is a strong basis to challenge forfeitures in Minnesota.
Forfeiture laws are often criticized because they can be brutally unfair. Unlike in criminal cases, there isn’t a right to an attorney if you can’t afford one, so many forfeitures go uncontested simply because it doesn’t make financial sense to fight them. Some progress has been made both at the federal level and at the state level (where our very own Tina Liebling has been a leader on this issue), but especially in Washington, that progress is being rolled back.
We congratulate Chuck and Dan on their victory in district court and we’ll be closely watching the Court of Appeals case.