This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).







City of Bloomington,





One 1991 Honda Accord, #BHL-298 VIN: #1HGCB7663MA905151, et al.,




Filed January 15, 2002


Hanson, Judge


Hennepin County District Court

File No. FP-01-000735


Sandra Henkels Johnson, Associate Bloomington City Attorney, 2215 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN 55431 (for appellant)


Hoang Duc Phung, 805 West 136th Street, Burnsville, MN 55337 (pro se respondent)


Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Hanson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N


In a motor vehicle forfeiture action, the district court granted respondent summary judgment, denying the forfeiture, based on the innocent-owner defense.  Appellant city argues that the innocent-owner defense should not be applied because the driver of the vehicle was the actual owner, who had purchased the vehicle from the registered owner and had failed to transfer title, or alternatively, that the driver lacked standing to assert the innocent-owner defense on behalf of the registered owner.  We affirm.


            Respondent Hoang Duc Phung was convicted of driving the respondent vehicle while impaired.  Phung had been convicted of driving while impaired twice during the preceding ten years, qualifying the vehicle for forfeiture. 

At the time of the offense, title to the vehicle was registered to Anthony Matthew Fox.  Fox had sold the vehicle to Phung’s brother, relinquishing “all right, title, and interest” in it.  Phung and his brother lived at the same address and stipulated that Phung, not his brother, was the actual owner of the vehicle.  Neither Phung nor his brother had transferred title to the vehicle within ten days of the purchase, as required by law. 

            Appellant City of Bloomington commenced forfeiture proceedings against the vehicle, serving Phung with a notice of seizure and intent to forfeit.  Shortly thereafter, Phung filed a demand for judicial determination of the forfeiture.  Fox was also served with a notice, but did not contest the proceedings.

Phung and the city each moved for summary judgment and stipulated to the facts.  The district court granted Phung’s motion, finding that although Phung had an ownership interest in the vehicle, and could therefore contest its forfeiture, Fox was the vehicle’s “owner” under the forfeiture statute.  Because the vehicle was not subject to forfeiture unless the statutorily defined owner “knew or should have known of the unlawful use or intended use,” the court concluded that forfeiture was not appropriate because Fox had no knowledge of its use.  This appeal followed.


            Questions of statutory construction are reviewed de novo.  Genin v. 1996 Mercury Marquis, 622 N.W.2d 114, 116 (Minn. 2001).  On an appeal from summary judgment where the facts are stipulated, we ask whether the district court erred in its application of the law, State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990), a question that is also reviewed de novo.  Morton Bldgs., Inc. v. Comm’r of Revenue, 488 N.W.2d 254, 257 (Minn. 1992). 


The city contends that forfeiture of the vehicle is warranted, and the innocent-owner defense is not applicable.  The city argues that the statutory definition of “owner” is ambiguous and should be interpreted to include Phung as the actual owner.  The city contends that any other result would be absurd, and contravene legislative intent, because it would allow the actual owner to insulate himself from forfeiture by engaging in the separate crime of failing to transfer title.  While the logic of the city’s argument is attractive, it finds no acceptance in the words of the statute. 

If the language of a statute is clear on its face and free from ambiguity, no interpretation is necessary, or even permissible.  Owens v. Water Gremlin Co., 605 N.W.2d 733, 737 (Minn. 2000).  In fact, “[t]he rules of construction forbid adding words or meaning to a statute that were intentionally or inadvertently left out.”  Genin, 622 N.W.2d at 117 (citation omitted). 

When a question of statutory construction involves a failure of expression rather than an ambiguity of expression, courts are not free to substitute amendment for construction and thereby supply the omissions of the legislature. 


Id. at 117 (quotation omitted). 

The DWI forfeiture statute permits forfeiture for certain designated offenses and Phung committed a designated offense.  But a vehicle is subject to forfeiture “only if its owner knew or should have known of the unlawful use or intended use.”  Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2000).  For this purpose, the statute defines “owner” to mean “the registered owner of the motor vehicle according to the records of the department of public safety.”  Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 1(f) (2000) (emphasis added).  This definition was crafted specifically for the DWI forfeiture section and supercedes, for that purpose, the somewhat broader definition of “owner” otherwise used in the traffic laws.[1] 

Nevertheless, the city urges this court to plug the “loophole” in the statute by looking beyond the registered owner to the actual owner, as was done in Rife v. One 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier, 485 N.W.2d 318, 321 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. June 30, 1992) (holding that the term “alleged owner” contained in the drug forfeiture statute, Minn. Stat. 609.531, subd. 6a(b) (1988), implies that registration is only a prima facia indication of title that can be rebutted by proof of actual ownership).  But, as we recently explained, Rife is inapplicable to DWI forfeitures because its interpretation of “alleged owner,” for drug forfeitures, is not controlling on the interpretation of “owner” in the DWI forfeiture statute.  See City of New Brighton v. 2000 Ford Excursion, 622 N.W.2d 364, 372-73 (Minn. App. 2001) (distinguishing drug forfeiture statute in Rife from DWI forfeiture statute), review denied (Minn. Apr. 17, 2001).[2] 

The city admits that Fox is the registered owner of the vehicle and does not allege that Fox knew, or should have known, of the vehicle’s illegal use.  Accordingly, as the district court concluded, the forfeiture must fail under the plain language of the statute.


Alternatively, the city asserts that if Phung is not the “owner,” he lacks standing to contest the forfeiture.  But the statutory scheme for providing standing to contest forfeiture is not limited to one who is an “owner.”  Under the DWI forfeiture statute, notice of a forfeiture action must be given to “all persons known to have an ownership, possessory, or security interest in the vehicle.”  Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 8(b) (2000).  While the statute does not specifically state that each person entitled to notice also has the right to obtain judicial review of the forfeiture, this conclusion is supported by negative implication from the prescribed form of the notice, which must substantially state:



Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 8(c)(3).  This conclusion is also supported by negative implication from the statutory requirement for the complaint, which states:

Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, an action for the return of a vehicle seized under this section may not be maintained by or on behalf of any person who has been served with a notice of seizure and forfeiture unless the person has complied with the subdivision.


Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 8(e).

The evidence shows that Phung was the actual owner of the vehicle.  While he was not the “registered owner,” his actual ownership provided him with a possessory interest sufficient to confer standing to seek a judicial determination. 




[1] See Minn. Stat. § 169.01, subd. 2b, (2000) (“[A] person who holds the legal title of a vehicle, or * * * [the] conditional vendee or lessee or mortgagor * * * .”).  See also Minn. Stat. 169A.01, subd. 17 (2000) (“owners” under chapter 169A has same meaning as in § 169.01, subd. 2b).

[2] Two recent unpublished decisions of this court have reached the same conclusion.  Newmeyer v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, No. C7-01-270 (Minn. App. July 31, 2001) (holding that the innocent-owner defense applied, and refusing to consider evidence of actual ownership, where wife was the registered owner and husband was the offending driver) and Kaiser v. One BMW 325; Coupe, No. C7-01-608 (Minn. App. Sept. 11, 2001) (holding innocent-owner defense applied where seller was the registered owner and buyer was the offending driver).