This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).

 

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

A03-1380

 

Kristi Lee Grove, claimant,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

One 2000 Oldsmobile,

VIN 1G3WS52HX4F153420,

Respondent.

 

Filed June 15, 2004

Affirmed

Willis, Judge

 

Polk County District Court

File No. C1-03-988

 

 

Steven M. Light, Lindsey D. Haugen, Larivee & Light, Ltd., US Bank Building, 600 Demers Avenue, Grand Forks, ND  58201 (for appellant)

 

Gregory A. Widseth, Polk County Attorney, 223 East Seventh Street, Suite 101, Crookston, MN  56716 (for respondent)

 

            Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Schumacher, Judge; and Willis, Judge.

 

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

WILLIS, Judge

            On appeal from a judicial determination in a motor-vehicle forfeiture action, appellant argues that the district court (1) misinterpreted the forfeiture statute and (2) erroneously found that she “knew or should have known” of the illegal use of her vehicle.  Because we conclude that the district court properly interpreted the forfeiture statute and that the district court did not clearly err by finding that appellant “knew or should have known” of the illegal use of her vehicle, we affirm.

FACTS

            On June 18, 2003, at approximately 7:30 p.m., appellant Kristi Lee Grove went to Ann Berger’s home to visit with her and her son, Bruce Allen Berger (Berger).  Grove was there for approximately two and one-half hours and consumed approximately three drinks.  She saw Berger drink one glass of wine; Berger testified that he also drank “a couple of” 32-ounce beers outside of Grove’s presence. 

            At approximately 10:15 p.m., Grove and Berger left to go to a bar.  Because Grove had been drinking, she told Berger that she did not “feel comfortable driving.”  Grove testified that Berger told her that he was “okay to drive” and that he then drove them to the bar in Grove’s car. 

While at the bar, Grove and Berger did not spend much time talking to one another; Grove testified that she had her “back somewhat turned” to Berger as she socialized with other people.  Grove testified that she believed that while the two were at the bar, Berger had two drinks; she testified that she bought herself and Berger each a drink after Berger told her that he had no money with him and that the people that she had been socializing with also may have purchased Berger a beer or a drink.  Berger testified, however, that while they were at the bar, he found nine or ten dollars in his pocket and that Grove “had no idea of the amount” that he was drinking.

            When Grove and Berger left the bar at approximately 12:30 a.m., Berger again drove Grove’s car.  After Berger went through a stop sign, East Grand Forks police officer Michelle Manias stopped the car.  Officer Manias testified that when she spoke with Berger, she noted that his eyes were bloodshot and watery and that the vehicle smelled of alcohol.  Officer Manias then had Berger perform four field sobriety tests, all of which he failed.  Berger was arrested for driving under the influence, and a Breathalyzer test showed that his blood-alcohol content was .22.  Because Berger had three prior driving-while-impaired convictions within a ten-year period, a first-degree driving-while-impaired charge was brought against him, and he pleaded guilty.

            The state then filed a notice of seizure and intent to forfeit Grove’s 2000 Oldsmobile because it had been used in the commission of a first-degree driving-while-impaired offense.  Grove filed a demand for a judicial determination, and after a hearing, the district court denied Grove’s demand for return of the vehicle.  The district court subsequently ordered Grove’s vehicle forfeited to the East Grand Forks Police Department.  This appeal follows.


D E C I S I O N

            Grove argues that the district court misinterpreted the forfeiture statute and also erroneously found that she “knew or should have known” of the illegal use of her vehicle.  Minnesota law permits forfeiture of a vehicle if it is used in the commission of a “designated offense.”  Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 6 (2002).  The term “designated offense” includes “a violation of section 169A.20 (driving while impaired) under the circumstances described in section 169A.24 (first-degree driving while impaired).”  Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 1(d)(1) (2002).  Minnesota Statutes section 169A.24, subdivision 1(1) (2002), provides that a person who violates Minn. Stat. § 169A.20 by driving while impaired is guilty of first-degree driving while impaired if the person “commits the violation within ten years of the first of three or more qualified prior impaired driving incidents.”  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) (2002). 

The district court determined that Grove’s vehicle is subject to forfeiture, finding that Grove “knew or should have known that Berger was under the influence of alcohol and of his unlawful use of her motor vehicle.”  Grove argues that the district court misinterpreted Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d), by analyzing only her knowledge or reason to know that Berger was driving while impaired and asserts that the phrase “knew or should have known of the illegal use” must be read to apply also to her knowledge or reason to know of Berger’s prior driving-while-impaired convictions.  Thus, because the district court did not make a finding that she knew or should have known of Berger’s past driving-while-impaired convictions, Grove asks this court to reverse the district court’s order denying her demand for return of her vehicle. 

Statutory construction is a question of law reviewed de novo.  Sorenson v. St. Paul Ramsey Med. Ctr., 457 N.W.2d 188, 190 (Minn. 1990).  The goal of the interpretation and construction of statutory language is to “ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature.”  Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2002).  A basic canon of statutory construction is that words and phrases should be construed according to their plain and ordinary meaning.  Id.; Stanton v. Mazda 2001 VIN 4F2YU08121KM57063, 660 N.W.2d 137, 139 (Minn. App. 2003).  The court must determine whether the statute’s language is clear or ambiguous, and a “statute is not ambiguous unless the language used is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation.”  Stanton, 660 N.W.2d at 139 (quoting Am. Family Ins. Group v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273, 277 (Minn. 2000)). 

            Minnesota Statutes section 169A.63, subdivision 7(d), provides that “[a] motor vehicle is subject to forfeiture under this section only if its owner knew or should have known of the unlawful use or intended use.”  We conclude that this language is unambiguous.  The district court found that forfeiture of Grove’s vehicle was appropriate because Grove “knew or should have known that Berger was under the influence of alcohol and of his unlawful use of her motor vehicle.”  But Grove argues that the district court misinterpreted the statute, asserting that the phrase “knew or should have known of the unlawful use” also applies to her knowledge or reason to know of Berger’s prior driving-while-impaired convictions.  Because the plain and ordinary meaning of the phrase “unlawful use” means use prohibited by law, we conclude that here it is sufficient for the purposes of the forfeiture statute that Grove knew or had reason to know that Berger drove her car while he was impaired, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 169A.20.  See Black’s Law Dictionary 1536, 1540 (7th ed. 1999) (defining “unlawful” as “not authorized by law; illegal” and “use” as “the application or employment of something”).[1]

Grove further argues that the district court erred by finding that she “knew or should have known that Berger was under the influence of alcohol and of his unlawful use of her motor vehicle.”  When reviewing a district court’s findings of fact, this court may not set suchfindings aside unless they are clearly erroneous or “manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.”  Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650, 656 (Minn. 1999) (quoting N. States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975)).  “If there is reasonable evidence to support the district court’s findings, we will not disturb them.”  Id. 

Grove points out that she testified that (1) she saw Berger have three drinks over a span of five hours, (2) she had seen Berger drunk in the past and on the evening of June 18, 2003, he was not exhibiting any of the signs of drunkenness that he normally displayed, and (3) she believed that Berger was not impaired when she allowed him to drive her vehicle.  Grove further notes that (1) Berger testified that he is an alcoholic and that he is good at hiding the signs of his intoxication and (2) Officer Manias testified that after her initial contact with Berger, Officer Manias was not “one hundred percent certain” that Berger was under the influence, which is why she had him perform the field sobriety tests.  Thus, Grove argues, the evidence does not support the district court’s finding that she “knew or should have known” that Berger was driving while impaired.  We disagree.

            Grove testified that although she did not like to drive after having even one drink because of the possibility of being stopped for driving while impaired, she allowed Berger to drive her vehicle although she knew that Berger had consumed a glass of wine at his mother’s house and she thought that he had consumed two drinks at the bar.  Grove did not ask Berger how many drinks he had at the bar, and she does not recall asking him if he was “okay to drive” when they left the bar.  Officer Manias testified that, based on Berger’s bloodshot eyes and the odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle, it was “readily apparent” that Berger had been consuming alcohol and that he exhibited signs of intoxication.  Officer Manias further testified that a Breathalyzer test showed that Berger’s blood-alcohol content was .22. 

The district court heard the testimony and was able to assess the credibility of the witnesses.  We conclude that the district court did not clearly err by finding that Grove “knew or should have known” that Berger was under the influence of alcohol and that his use of her motor vehicle was unlawful.  See Sefkow v. Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d 203, 210 (Minn. 1988)(noting that a reviewing court must give due regard to the district court’s determination of witness credibility).

            Affirmed.

           



[1] The Florida District Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion in Dept. of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles v. Megan-Neave, which involves a forfeiture statute similar to Minnesota’s.  845 So. 2d 934, 935-36 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2003).  There, as here, the owner of a vehicle argued that her vehicle should be exempt from forfeiture because she was unaware of the facts regarding the driver’s driving history that placed her vehicle at risk of forfeiture.  Id. at 935.  The court rejected the owner’s argument, finding forfeiture appropriate because it was sufficient that the owner knew that the driver was under the influence when he drove her vehicle and that, therefore, the owner knew that her vehicle was being used in criminal activity.  Id. at 936-37.