Hennepin County District Court File No. FP019460
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wright, Judge
Considered and decided by Anderson , Presiding Judge, Stoneburner , Judge, and Wright , Judge.
In a DWI-related vehicle forfeiture proceeding, a court must objectively determine whether forfeiture is excessive under the United States Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines and Article I, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution, and should not examine the individual financial circumstances of the owner of the vehicle seized.
After respondent Debra Miller was arrested twice in seven months for gross misdemeanor driving while impaired (DWI), appellant City of Bloomington (Bloomington) commenced forfeiture proceedings pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.63 (2000) against her 2001 Pontiac Aztek. The district court found that forfeiture would be unconstitutionally excessive and ordered Bloomington to sell the vehicle and distribute all but $1,000 of the proceeds to Miller. Bloomington argues that the district court erred when it (1) found that the DWI forfeiture of Miller's vehicle violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution; and (2) improperly applied the forfeiture statute. We reverse and remand.
The facts of this case are undisputed. On June 6, 2001, Miller was arrested for gross misdemeanor driving while impaired in violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20, subd. 1(5),.25 (2000). At the time of the arrest, her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was.29. Approximately seven months earlier, on November 16, 2000, Miller was arrested for gross misdemeanor DWI, having a BAC of.26. On January 25, 2001, Miller was convicted of the November 2000 offense and, on July 11, 2001, Miller was convicted of the June 2001 offense.
Because her first DWI conviction was less than ten years old, and because her BAC was above.20, there were two "aggravating factors" present when Miller committed the June 2001 offense, making it a first-degree DWI. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.25, subd. 1 (stating that person is guilty of first-degree DWI if "two or more aggravating factors were present when the violation was committed"),.03, subd. 3 (2000) (aggravating factors include both impaired driving incident within last ten years and having BAC over.20). Miller's first-degree DWI constituted a "designated offense," which qualified Miller's vehicle for forfeiture. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.63, subds. 1(d)(1) (stating that "designated offense" includes a violation of section 169A.20, driving while impaired, under circumstances described in section 169A.25, first-degree driving while impaired), 2 (2000) (providing for seizure of motor vehicle involved in designated offense). Bloomington commenced forfeiture proceedings against Miller's vehicle.
Miller filed a demand for judicial determination regarding the forfeiture. Bloomington subsequently moved for summary judgment. The district court denied Bloomington's motion for summary judgment and ordered an evidentiary hearing.
At the evidentiary hearing, the district court examined Miller's financial status. In September 2000, Miller was laid off her job. She used part of her severance package to purchase the 2001 Pontiac Aztek that she was driving when she was arrested in June 2001. At the time of the evidentiary hearing, Miller was still unemployed. She was receiving unemployment benefits, which were used to pay living expenses. The district court found that Miller had "little or no assets," had credit card debt of approximately $2,000, and was indebted to an attorney who represented her in a recent marital dissolution action.
On March 8, 2002, the district court issued an order concluding that the vehicle forfeiture would be "unconstitutionally excessive" because of its impact on Miller. The district court also found that Miller has suffered substantially due to her conviction i.e. jail, and is presently indigent with little or no savings and her only asset is the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, which the City of Bloomington seeks to have forfeited.
The district court concluded that "the forfeiture of her vehicle will produce a disparate result for [Miller] and it is inequitable to her." The district court ordered that the vehicle be sold, that Bloomington waive storage fees, and that all the proceeds of ...