MOORHEAD, Minn. - To dismantle a drug-dealing operation, authorities across the country have the power to take ownership of cash and guns linked to illegal activity.

But this crime-fighting tactic, known as civil-asset forfeiture, is often used in Minnesota and other states for the more mundane purpose of confiscating the cars of repeat drunken drivers. It’s a practice some believe infringes on civil rights, while others see it as a fitting penalty.

Over the past three years, an increasing percentage of the forfeited property in Clay County has been the vehicles of convicted drunken drivers - 41 percent in 2011, 54 percent in 2012 and 67 percent in 2013, according to a state auditor’s report.

Explaining the increase isn’t easy.

Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said his office has not changed its policy in recent years and continues to confiscate vehicles whenever the law permits. The vehicles are auctioned off, with Melton’s office receiving 30 percent of the proceeds and the arresting agency taking the rest, which must be spent on drunken driving enforcement.

“It doesn’t matter to the state if it’s a $1,000 vehicle or if it’s $50,000,” Melton said, explaining that the intent of the forfeiture law is to keep drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel. “The real concern is ultimately the public’s safety.”

Innocent owners

In Minnesota, drunken drivers can lose their vehicles if they have at least two prior convictions for driving while intoxicated in the past 10 years. Also, a person with a first-time DWI conviction can forfeit a vehicle if there are two or more aggravating factors, such as having a blood-alcohol content over 0.20 percent and driving with children. The same can happen if there’s one aggravating factor and a chemical test is refused.

In these sorts of cases, police immediately have the vehicle towed to an impound lot. Only in cases with a conviction can a vehicle be forfeited. For authorities to take ownership of a vehicle, a prosecutor has to file a forfeiture case in civil court, which is separate from the criminal case.

If the driver charged with DWI does not own the car, the owner can make what’s known as an innocent-owner defense. In such cases, the burden is on the owner to prove his or her innocence, said Ben Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

“While there’s an innocent-owner process that you can go through, it’s still quite onerous on the individual because you have to file a lawsuit in civil court against your own property. And your car has to be worth it,” Feist said.

Because many of the vehicles forfeited by drunken drivers have little value, the cost of hiring an attorney is often greater than the price of the vehicle, Feist said. Sometimes owners will decline a court battle even if they are innocent, he said.

In general, the ACLU takes issue with how forfeiture laws are used, as well as the concept of “policing for profit,” Feist said. “We think that there’s an inherent conflict with that concept. Decisions shouldn’t be made based on whether the agency will get money.”

State, county numbers

In North Dakota, drunken drivers with at least two convictions in seven years can lose a vehicle as part of a criminal sentence in a misdemeanor case. Vehicles also can be forfeited when a drunken driving offense is charged as a felony, said Cass County prosecutor Tristan Van de Streek.

In felony cases, prosecutors have to prove in civil court that, more likely than not, the vehicle was used to commit the crime. And because the threshold of proof is lower in civil court than criminal court, a defendant can be acquitted in criminal court and still lose the vehicle in civil court, Van de Streek said.

Cass County does not keep statistics on forfeitures related to drunken driving. In Minnesota, police agencies must report forfeited property to state officials, and complete data is available back to 2011.

Statewide, the number of DWI forfeitures has risen from 2,785 in 2011 to 2,851 in 2012 to 3,128 in 2013. As a percentage of all forfeited property, DWI forfeitures represented 44 percent in 2011, 42 percent in 2012 and 45 percent in 2013, according to the Minnesota state auditor’s report.

In Clay County, while the percentage of DWI forfeitures has risen since 2011, the actual number of such forfeitures has not gone up dramatically. Thirty-nine vehicles were forfeited in both 2011 and 2012, and there were 44 in 2013, the report stated.

The vast majority of DWI forfeitures in the past few years have originated with arrests made by Moorhead police and Clay County sheriff’s deputies.

In 2013, the sheriff’s department saw its number of DWI stops that led to vehicle forfeitures shoot to 17, compared with five in 2012 and four in 2011.

Chief Deputy Matt Sirro said the increase could be due to the hiring of more deputies, which has allowed for more time to enforce DWI laws.

“We’re finally full staffed the last year,” he said. “We just have more people working, and they’re working more.”

At the Moorhead Police Department, the total number of forfeitures has dropped from 85 in 2011 to 40 in 2013. This included a drop in DWI forfeitures, from 34 in 2011 to 23 in 2013.

Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said the department’s increase in DWI forfeitures as a percentage of the total forfeitures isn’t so much a result of more DWI enforcement but rather a decrease in the number of forfeitures related to drugs and fleeing.

For Sirro, forfeiture is another tool to make people think twice about driving drunk, but whether it’s a deterrent is unclear. “People still aren’t getting the message,” he said.

While drunken driving persists in Clay County, the number of DWI cases dropped 13 percent in the past four years from 396 in 2010 to 343 in 2013, according to the county attorney’s office.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports forfeiture in DWI cases, but the organization believes the only way to stop drunken driving is an ignition interlock, an alcohol-detection device that a driver must blow into before starting a vehicle.

“Taking away the vehicle, taking the license does not separate drinking from driving,” said MADD spokeswoman Carol Ronis.

North Dakota has an ignition interlock program, but no circumstances require it. In Minnesota, an ignition interlock is mandatory for convicted drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol content of twice the legal limit or greater.

Jennifer Freeburg, executive director of MADD in Minnesota, said less than 1 percent of participants in the ignition interlock program have reoffended. She said MADD wants ignition interlocks to be required for all convicted drunken drivers, regardless of their blood-alcohol level.

If Minnesota were to pass such legislation, Freeburg said, “the forfeiture laws related to DWIs would in essence be a moot point.”

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