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Police in Minnesota make bank selling seized cars, even if the owner's innocent

Minnesota state statute dictates that police can take vehicles used to commit certain offenses, like first-degree DWIs... even if it wasn't the offender's vehicle in the first place.

Minnesota state statute dictates that police can take vehicles used to commit certain offenses, like first-degree DWIs... even if it wasn't the offender's vehicle in the first place. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Back in 2015, Megan Olson got arrested by the Shakopee Police Department for driving while impaired.

Olson had three previous DWI convictions under her belt. That meant she may be charged with a first-degree count this time.

Getting slapped with a first-degree DWI meant the vehicle Olson was driving, a 1999 Lexus, was subject to forfeiture. It’s one of a few offenses designated by state statute that allow the cops to seize property upon your arrest.

If you don’t contest that seizure in court within the allotted time, the police can keep it, and they can sell it.

It’s a measure intended to keep offenders from reoffending, but critics say it also punishes people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – like sitting in the passenger seat, letting a friend they thought was sober drive instead of them.

Or, in Olson’s case, it seems to have unduly punished her mother, Helen, the actual owner of the Lexus. Helen couldn’t contest the seizure until her daughter’s criminal case was ajudicated. By the time Megan pleaded guilty to a first-degree DWI and the Olsons got a hearing on the Lexus, 18 months had passed, according to court documents.

They took their case to court, arguing that their right to due process had been violated, and managed to get the Lexus back. But their case also brought up questions about the statute’s constitutionality, which made their way before the Minnesota Supreme Court last year.

The state high court found that the law was not, on its face, unconstitutional, though the way police were executing it might be. According to court documents, Minnesota law “provides no assessment whatsoever” that the state actually has the authority to seize a purportedly innocent owner’s car.

Legislators have tried rewriting this law, one police have a real financial interest in protecting. A recent investigation by KSTP found that police departments across the state have taken close to 14,000 vehicles and made nearly $10 million off selling them in the past three years alone. About three out of four vehicles seized between 2016 and 2018 were related to drunk driving offenses.

Back in 2017, Minnesota House Rep. John Lesch (D-St. Paul) testified about his struggle, as an attorney, to help his client get an impounded Chevy back from authorities. Her ex-boyfriend had been the one driving it. Lesch called the whole process “insane.”

“I could not believe we created a system like that,” he said in a statement.

He’s repeatedly authored bills trying to change it, but hasn’t made any headway. He told KSTP opposition from the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association is partly responsible for killing this year’s bill.

“When you’re taking vehicles from innocent owners… you’re not making anyone safer, you’re just lining your pockets,” he told KSTP. “It’s not the right way to fund law enforcement… even law enforcement knows that.”

From 2017 to 2019, the Minnesota State Patrol spent the majority of its forfeiture money on salaries ($686,000), rent ($493,000), and towing fees ($475,000).