Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, No. A07-2023.

Decision Date26 August 2008
Docket NumberNo. A07-2023.
Citation755 N.W.2d 23
PartiesDavid Lee LAASE, Respondent, v. 2007 CHEVROLET TAHOE, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Court of Appeals

Stephen V. Grigsby, Princeton, MN, and Brian P. Karalus, St. Paul, MN, for Respondent.

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

Considered and decided by ROSS, Presiding Judge; JOHNSON, Judge; and HARTEN, Judge.


HARTEN, Judge.*

Appellant 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe (the vehicle) was seized in Isanti County because its driver, one of the vehicle's two joint owners, was convicted of a designated offense. After a hearing, the district court rejected the county's argument that the innocent-owner defense did not apply and ordered the vehicle to be returned to its other joint owner. The county challenges that order. Subsequently, the county moved for and was granted a stay of the order pending this appeal.


On 17 May 2006, in Isanti County, Jean Laase, wife of respondent David Laase, was driving a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe of which they were joint owners. She was stopped and arrested for suspicion of DWI, and the vehicle was seized for forfeiture. She pled guilty to second-degree DWI — refusal to submit to chemical testing. She had one prior impaired-driving conviction. The district court disallowed forfeiture under the innocent-owner defense.1


Does Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2006), authorize forfeiture of a vehicle used by one of its owners to commit a designated offense when a joint owner proves by clear and convincing evidence that he or she did not know the vehicle would be used in a manner contrary to law?


Statutory construction is a question of law, which this court reviews de novo. Brookfield Trade Ctr., Inc. v. County of Ramsey, 584 N.W.2d 390, 393 (Minn. 1998). The application of a statute to the undisputed facts of a case involves a question of law, and the district court's decision is not binding on this court. O'Malley v. Ulland Bros., 549 N.W.2d 889, 892 (Minn. 1996).

The county argues that the vehicle is subject to forfeiture because its driver was convicted of a designated offense while driving it and "[a] vehicle is presumed subject to forfeiture ... if ... the driver is convicted of the designated offense upon which the forfeiture is based...." Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(a)(1) (2006). Respondent asserts that the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture because he demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know it would be operated in a manner contrary to law and "[a] motor vehicle is not subject to forfeiture ... 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...." Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2006) (the innocent-owner defense).

No statute addresses the instant situation in which one owner of a jointly owned vehicle subjects the vehicle to forfeiture by driving it in a manner that led to that joint owner's conviction of a designated offense and the other joint owner challenges forfeiture by showing that he had no knowledge that the vehicle would be driven in a manner contrary to law. The absence of statutory law covering forfeiture in these circumstances creates a case of first impression.

It is well settled that courts may not add to a statute what the legislature purposely omits or inadvertently overlooks. Ullom v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 112, 515 N.W.2d 615, 617 (Minn.App.1994); see also Genin v. 1996 Mercury Marquis, 622 N.W.2d 114, 119 (Minn.2001) (rejecting construction of statute that would "add words to the statute [because] the rules governing statutory construction forbid that"). The legislature could have restricted application of the innocent-owner defense to forfeiture set out in Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), to situations in which the driver of the vehicle was not a joint owner, but it did not do so.2

Genin addressed whether, when a vehicle was seized for forfeiture but ultimately returned to its owner, the owner or the seizing authority was responsible for storage fees during the seizure. 622 N.W.2d at 116. The vehicle was seized under Minn.Stat. § 169.1217 (1998), which provided that the owner of a seized vehicle could recover possession of the vehicle before the forfeiture proceeding by posting bond. The owner in Genin did not post bond, and his vehicle was not ultimately forfeited but returned to him. 622 N.W.2d at 116. The statute provided that, if the vehicle was ultimately forfeited, the proceeds could be used to pay its storage expenses, but did not address how those expenses were to be paid if the vehicle was not ultimately forfeited. Id. at 117-18. The supreme court rejected the view that, by not posting bond, the owner had rendered himself liable for the storage fees because it involved amending rather than construing the statute. Id. at 119. Analogously, we cannot amend the innocent-owner defense to exclude its application in situations in which the offending driver is also a joint-owner.

Moreover, "[b]ecause of the punitive and disfavored nature of the forfeiture laws, this court is to strictly construe [their] language and resolve any doubt in favor of the party challenging [them]." Schug v. Nine Thousand Nine Hundred Sixteen Dollars & Fifty Cents in U.S. Currency, 669 N.W.2d 379, 382 (Minn.App. 2003) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. 16 Dec. 2003). The doubt resulting from the omission of statutory language reconciling Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subds. 6, 7(a)(1) (2006) (requiring forfeiture of a vehicle whose driver is convicted of a designated offense) with Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (disallowing forfeiture of a vehicle whose owner does not know it is being driven in a manner contrary to law) must therefore be resolved in favor of respondent, a joint owner of the vehicle and the party challenging forfeiture.

In construing statutes, our objective is to give effect to the intent of the legislature. Minn.Stat. § 645.16 (2006). The legislature's reluctance to impose forfeiture on a vehicle whose owner was not aware of its misuse is evident not only in Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (owner of vehicle whose driver is convicted of designated offense) but also in Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 2(a) (2006) (owner of property used in transaction of business as a common carrier); Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 3(b)(2) (2006) (owner of vehicle used in prostitution offense); Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 4(b)(2) (2006) (owner of vehicle used for fleeing a police officer); and Minn.Stat. § 609.5318, subd. 5(b) (2006) (owner of vehicle used in drive-by shooting). Minn.Stat. §§ 609.531-.5318 "must be liberally construed to carry out [their] ... remedial purposes...." Minn. Stat. § 609.531, subd. 1a (2006). Liberal construction "applies a writing in light of the situation presented and ... tends to effectuate the spirit and purpose of the writing." Black's Law Dictionary 308 (7th ed.1999). The purpose of the cited provisions of those statutes is to prevent innocent owners from losing their vehicles through forfeiture. Thus, Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), sharing that purpose, should also be liberally construed to prevent respondent, an innocent owner, from losing his vehicle through forfeiture.3

Finally, the county argues that returning respondent's vehicle to him defeats the forfeiture statute's overall purpose of protecting the public from intoxicated drivers. See Lukkason v. 1993 Chevrolet Extended Cab Pickup, 590 N.W.2d 803, 806 (Minn.App.1999) (construing predecessor statute), review denied (Minn. 18 May 1999). But "the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit." State v. Loge, 608 N.W.2d 152, 155 (Minn.2000) (quotation omitted). The law explicitly and repeatedly provides that vehicles used to commit crimes are not subject to forfeiture if their owners did not know of the criminal use. See Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d); Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 2(a); Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 3(b)(2); Minn.Stat. § 609.5312, subd. 4(b)(2); Minn.Stat. § 609.5318, subd. 5(b). We agree with the county that the spirit of Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(a)(1), is protecting the public from vehicles driven by intoxicated drivers, but we cannot ignore the letter of Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), precluding forfeiture of the vehicles of innocent owners. Respondent, an innocent joint owner, is entitled to the return of his vehicle.


Because Minn.Stat. § 169A.63 (2006), does not authorize forfeiture of a vehicle used by one of its joint owners to commit a designated offense when the other joint owner has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know the vehicle would be used in a manner contrary to law, the district court did not err in ordering the return of respondent's vehicle.


* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

1. The district court ruled from the bench and found that respondent "did not know that [his wife] consumed any alcohol ... [or] that her intent was to consume alcohol.... [Respondent] by clear and convincing evidence has shown that he had no knowledge of alcohol consumption, intent to consume alcohol, [or] intent to violate [a] Minnesota Statute by driving under the influence...."

2. The only statutory provision concerning vehicles with joint owners is Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 1(h) (2006), providing 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." Because neither party suggested apportionment, this provision is not relevant here.

3. Minn.Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), also provides that, "[i]f the offender [convicted of a designated offense committed while driving the...

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5 cases
  • Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe
    • United States
    • Minnesota Supreme Court
    • 17 Diciembre 2009
    ...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 On May 16, 2006, respondent David Laase met his wife, Jea......
  • Laase v. County of Isanti
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit
    • 20 Abril 2011 clear and convincing evidence that he did not know the vehicle would be used in a manner contrary to law.” Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 755 N.W.2d 23, 26 (Minn.Ct.App.2008). The court of appeals did not address any claim that the forfeiture statute was unconstitutional, either facially......
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