Friday, November 06, 2009

Pirates in blue V

Alternate title: Jeep lust

You can read the earlier installments here: part one, part two, part three, and part four. This is the final installment in the series, bringing the issue back home.

Kristen Brown at impound Just a week ago, there was an article in the Metro West section of the Star Tribune about a Richfield mother who had successfully sued to get her Jeep Grand Cherokee back from the Edina police. You’ll remember that Brown’s son was cited for a DWI while driving his mother’s car. The car was seized, and the Edina police commenced an administrative forfeiture proceeding.

Here’s part of what the police said about the seizure and attempted forfeiture of Brown’s vehicle:

Edina police defend what they did, asserting they had the law on their side. Brown's attorney says that when it comes to forfeitures, the Legislature has stacked the deck against property owners and that the law should be changed.

Police said their priority is to keep cars away from repeat offenders. Brown's son, Chris Brown-McCarthy, 21, has a drunken driving conviction from 2007.

"We do take a hard line on it," said Edina Police Chief Mike Siitari. "We do get this occasionally, that, 'It's my car. I didn't know anything about it.' We take a look at it with a jaundiced eye."

You can read both the US. and Minnesota Constitutions from top to bottom and side to side and you will not find the “jaundiced eye” clause.

If the “priority” is to keep cars away from repeat offenders, the chief ought to be asked how many $500 clunkers — or cheap cars in general — that the department has ever seized and and sought to forfeit from their owners. Probably not many. But somebody ought to ask, anyway.

Perhaps the eye is not so much jaundiced as covetous. Remember, on a forfeited car, the department making the bust keeps 70% of the proceeds of the car if sold, or it may keep the car for its own departmental use.

This was Brown’s son’s second impaired driving incident. Here is what Minn. Stat. sec. 169A.63, Subd. 7(d) says about imputing knowledge of illegal vehicle use to an owner:

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. If the offender is a family or household member of the owner and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions, the owner is presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.  . . . [italics are the author’s]

The article does not state whether Brown’s son’s first violation was in the Cherokee or not.

It is apparent that Chief Siitari was more eager than the statute to imput knowledge of the impaired driving to Ms. Brown. Here’s how he justifies that:

"We look at this as a one way to put an end to [DWI]," he said. "You see it regularly, repeat offenders don't have cars in their names. They still drive. Under these circumstances, I would prefer to have a neutral party determine" if the owner gets the car back.

There was no statutory mandate to commence a forfeiture in this case. It only became a judicial forfeiture because Kristin Brown started a lawsuit to make it one. It is also clear that the police had not the smallest regard for Kristin Brown’s claim of innocence — remember, the chief had a “jaundiced eye” — a claim that was vindicated in court. But she had to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to do it. And it is disingenuous, to put it charitably, to say that it was all under the guise of having a “neutral party determine” whether Kristin Brown would get her car back.

Administrative forfeiture is a system that has run amuck. It is the rare case like Kristin Brown’s where there is any oversight of police conduct. Administrative forfeiture can and does deprive persons of money, property, and motor vehicles on the spot, while giving them only a brief time, and a complicated and expensive process, to prove their innocence and reclaim their property.

Prove their innocence. Has kind of Soviet ring to it, doesn’t it?

Star Tribune photo

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