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Miller v. One 2001 Pontiac Aztek

October 16, 2003

DEBRA JANE MILLER, APPELLANT,
v.
ONE 2001 PONTIAC AZTEK, #GHS-186, VIN: 3G7DA03E41S500032, DEFENDANT, CITY OF BLOOMINGTON, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Forfeiture of the vehicle in issue, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.63 (2000), following a first-degree driving while impaired conviction, in violation of Minn. Stat. §á169A.20 (2000), does not constitute an Excessive Punishment under the United States or Minnesota Constitutions.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, Justice.

OPINION

The facts in this case are undisputed. On June 6, 2001, in the City of Bloomington, Debra Jane Miller, appellant, was arrested for gross misdemeanor driving while impaired (DWI) pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(5) (2000). Approximately 7 months earlier, on November 16, 2000, appellant was arrested for gross misdemeanor DWI, having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of.26. On January 25, 2001, appellant was convicted of the first offense and, on July 11, 2001, appellant was convicted of the second DWI offense.

Appellant's second DWI conviction qualified as a "first-degree" conviction. A person is guilty of first-degree DWI if "two or more aggravating factors" are present. Minn. Stat. § 169A.25, subd.á1 (2000)*fn1. Aggravating factors include a second DWI conviction within a 10-year span and with a BAC higher than.20. Minn. Stat.á§á169A.03, subd. 3 (2000). Appellant's first-degree DWI constituted a "designated offense," which qualified appellant's vehicle for forfeiture. See Minn. Stat. §á169A.63, subd. 1(d)(1) (2000) (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), Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 2 (2000) (providing for seizure of motor vehicle involved in designated offense).

Appellant filed a demand for judicial determination per Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 8 (2000). The City of Bloomington moved for summary judgment. The district court denied the City's motion for summary judgment and ordered an evidentiary hearing. At appellant's January 14, 2002, forfeiture hearing, she provided her financial information. She testified that she was laid off from her employment in September 2000, and received a severance package worth $79,200, of which she spent $16,000 on the 2001 Pontiac Aztek that was subject to forfeiture. Appellant remained unemployed and collected state unemployment benefits. Appellant had no dependents, but argued that she would be severely restricted without the proceeds of her automobile forfeiture.

After the hearing, the district court held that, due to appellant's financial condition, any forfeiture of appellant's vehicle exceeding $1,000 would violate the Excessive Fines Clauses of the United States and Minnesota Constitutions. It ordered the City to sell appellant's vehicle, waive any storage fees, keep $1,000, and remit all remaining funds back to appellant.

The court of appeals reversed the district court's decision. It held that the district court erred in considering appellant's personal financial situation. After applying a gross disproportionality test, the court of appeals determined that the forfeiture was not excessive. It remanded with instructions to order the vehicle forfeited pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.63. We affirm.

I.

Cases involving the constitutionality of a statute are questions of law which we review de novo. State v. Rewitzer, 617 N.W.2d 407, 412 (Minn. 2000); Matter of Blilie, 494 N.W.2d 877, 881 (Minn. 1993); State Farm Ins. Cos. v. Seefeld, 481 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Minn. 1992).

The United States and Minnesota Constitutions both protect individuals from excessive fines. See U.S. Const. amend. VIII ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."); Minn. Const. art. I § 5 ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."). We have previously stated that "[a] large discretion is necessarily vested in the legislature to impose penalties sufficient to prevent the commission of an offense, and it would have to be an extreme case to warrant the courts in holding that the constitutional limit has been transcended." State v. Rodman, 59áN.W. 1098, 1100 (Minn. 1894).

The United States Supreme Court extensively explored the Excessive Fines Clause pertaining to a forfeiture in United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998). In Bajakajian, customs officers stopped the defendant as he attempted to leave the United States. The customs officers found $357,144 in currency and confiscated it. Id. at 324. Bajakajian was charged with one count of violating 18áU.S.C. § 5316(a)(1)(A) (1994), requiring travelers to declare their belongings if they are transporting more than $10,000 from the United States. 524 U.S. at 325. If a person is in violation of the statute, a court has ...


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