Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe

Decision Date17 December 2009
Docket NumberNo. A07-2023.,A07-2023.
Citation776 N.W.2d 431
PartiesDavid Lee LAASE, Respondent, v. 2007 CHEVROLET TAHOE, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Jeffrey R. Edblad, Isanti County Attorney, Shila A. Walek Hooper, Assistant Isanti County Attorney, Cambridge, MN, for appellant.

Brian Karalus, Princeton, MN, for respondent.

OPINION

GILDEA, Justice.

In this case we are asked to determine whether the innocent owner defense found in the vehicle forfeiture statute, Minn.Stat. § 169A.63 (2008), is available to a joint owner of the forfeited vehicle. The district court concluded that the defense was available to the vehicle's joint owner who did not have actual or constructive knowledge of the other owner's unlawful use. Based on the defense, the court held that the vehicle was not subject to forfeiture. The court of appeals affirmed in a split decision. Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 755 N.W.2d 23, 26 (Minn.App.2008). Because we conclude that the defense is not available, we reverse.

On May 16, 2006, respondent David Laase met his wife, Jean Margaret Laase, at a golf club at approximately at 7 p.m. Mr. Laase testified that he had played golf at the club that afternoon and was on his way home. He explained that Ms. Laase planned to play golf in a league that evening and stayed at the club. Mr. Laase said that he did not observe his wife holding a drink that evening, nor did he have the impression that she had been drinking at all. But Mr. Laase testified that his wife called him at about 1 a.m. on May 17, 2006, and told him she had "been arrested for a DWI."

The record reflects that Ms. Laase was stopped in the early morning hours of May 17, 2006 on suspicion that she was driving while impaired. At that time, Ms. Laase drove a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe that she owned jointly with Mr. Laase. Both Mr. and Ms. Laase are listed as owners on the vehicle title, and Mr. Laase testified that he and his wife share the vehicle, although he is the primary driver. He also testified that both he and his wife have a set of keys to the vehicle, his wife has free access to the vehicle, and she does not ask permission before driving it.

As a result of the May 17, 2006, traffic stop, Ms. Laase was arrested and charged. She subsequently pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal test refusal under Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 2 (2008) ("It is a crime for any person to refuse to submit to a chemical test of the person's blood, breath or urine. . . .").1 On September 28, 2006, the district court convicted Ms. Laase of this offense and imposed sentence. Thereafter, Isanti County seized the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe that Ms. Laase had been driving under Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, which provides that a vehicle is subject to forfeiture for the offense of second-degree criminal test refusal.

Mr. Laase challenged the County's seizure by making a demand for judicial determination under Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 9 (2008). After a hearing, the district court concluded that the vehicle was not subject to forfeiture because Mr. Laase demonstrated that he was an "innocent owner" under Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008). The County appealed and the district court granted the County's motion to stay its order directing that the vehicle be returned to Mr. Laase pending appeal. The court of appeals affirmed. Laase, 755 N.W.2d at 26. We granted the County's petition for review.

I.

The question presented in this case is whether the "innocent owner" defense provided for in Minnesota's vehicle forfeiture statute, Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), applies to prevent forfeiture of the Laases' vehicle. Under this defense:

A motor vehicle is not subject to forfeiture under this section if its owner can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the owner did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be used or operated in any manner contrary to law or that the owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.

Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d). Each party argues that the plain language of subdivision 7(d) supports its position. The County argues that the innocent owner defense does not apply because both owners were not innocent. Mr. Laase argues that, because he is an owner and innocent, the defense is available. Statutory interpretation presents a question of law that we review de novo. Amaral v. St. Cloud Hospital, 598 N.W.2d 379, 383 (Minn. 1999).

A.

We turn first to a discussion of the relevant provisions in Minnesota's vehicle forfeiture statute. The Minnesota Legislature has provided that vehicles used in certain driving offenses are subject to forfeiture. Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 6. The County invoked this statute in seeking to forfeit the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe that Ms. Laase was driving on the night of her arrest. Under the statute, the "vehicle is presumed subject to forfeiture" when "the driver is convicted of the designated offense upon which the forfeiture is based." Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7. The parties do not dispute that designated offenses for purposes of the vehicle forfeiture statute include the offense for which Ms. Laase was convicted. See Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 1(e)(1) (2008) (listing designated offenses).

The legislature has also provided a judicial process for challenging the forfeiture. See Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 9 (2008). In such a circumstance, the burden is on the party claiming that the forfeiture is not authorized. Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 9(e). If a vehicle's "owner makes the demonstration required under subdivision 7, paragraph (d)" during the judicial process, "the vehicle must be returned." Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 9(g). For purposes of the vehicle forfeiture statute, a vehicle "owner" is "a person legally entitled to possession, use, and control of a motor vehicle," and a registered owner is presumed to be an owner. Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 1(h) (2008). The definition of "owner" also provides that "if a motor vehicle is owned jointly by two or more people, each owner's interest extends to the whole of the vehicle and is not subject to apportionment." Id.

Mr. Laase invoked the judicial process by filing a demand for judicial determination that the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe was not subject to forfeiture. He relied specifically on the provision in the statute that provides an affirmative defense for the "innocent owner." Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 9(g) (noting that "the vehicle must be returned" if "the owner makes the demonstration required under subdivision 7, paragraph (d)"). Under subdivision 7(d), an owner regains possession of the vehicle if the owner proves by clear and convincing evidence that the owner lacked knowledge of the offender's unlawful use or that the owner took reasonable steps to prevent the use of the vehicle by the offender. Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).

B.

With these statutory provisions in mind, we turn to the interpretation question presented here. The legislature has provided that "[t]he object of all interpretation and construction of laws is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature." Minn.Stat. § 645.16 (2008). To interpret a statute, the court first assesses "whether the statute's language, on its face, is clear or ambiguous." Am. Family Ins. Group v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273, 277 (Minn.2000). If the law is "clear and free from all ambiguity," the plain meaning controls and is not "disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit." Minn.Stat. § 645.16; Phelps v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 537 N.W.2d 271, 274 (Minn.1995) ("Where the intention of the legislature is clearly manifested by plain unambiguous language . . . no construction is necessary or permitted.").

The parties appear to agree that the "innocent owner" defense in the vehicle forfeiture statute, Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), is unambiguous. The parties disagree, however, over whether all owners of the vehicle must be innocent in order for the defense to apply. The statute is written in the singular, providing that the defense is available if the vehicle's "owner" demonstrates innocence. Id. But the County contends that we should rely on the canon in which the legislature has stated that the "singular includes the plural." Minn.Stat. § 645.08(2) (2008). With "owner" construed as "owners" in subdivision 7(d), the County argues it is clear that the defense does not apply to this case because both "owners" were not innocent. Mr. Laase responds that canons of construction, including the canon that the singular includes the plural, have no applicability here because the statute is not ambiguous.2

The legislature has directed that "[i]n construing the statutes of this state, [certain] canons of interpretation are to govern, unless their observance would involve a construction inconsistent with the manifest intent of the legislature, or repugnant to the context of the statute." Minn.Stat. § 645.08 (emphasis added). The referenced "canons of interpretation" include that "words and phrases are construed according to rules of grammar and according to their common and approved usage," and that "the singular includes the plural; and the plural, the singular." Minn.Stat. § 645.08(1), (2).

We have utilized the "canons of interpretation" set forth in Minn.Stat. § 645.08 in determining the plain meaning of a statute without first concluding that the statute was ambiguous. See, e.g., State by Beaulieu v. RSJ, Inc., 552 N.W.2d 695, 701 (Minn.1996) ("The court's role is to discover and effectuate the legislature's intent. In doing so, we construe technical words according to their technical meaning and other words according to their common and approved usage and the rules of grammar. When the language of a statute, so construed, is unambiguous, we apply its plain meaning.") (citing Minn.Stat. § 645.08 (1994) (citations omitted)). We have also specifically used the canon that "the singular includes the plural" to help ascertain the plain...

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