Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
1995 Pontiac Grand Prix (VIN: 162WJ12M95F268403),
File No. C4965762
Howard S. Carp, Howard L. Bolter, Borkon, Ramstead, Mariani & Letourneau, Ltd., 485 Northstar East, 608 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellants)
Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Kathryn M. Eilers, Assistant County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Blvd., Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Harten, Judge.
Appellants contend that the trial court made erroneous findings of fact and erred in refusing to allow appellants to offer an "innocent owner" defense in an administrative forfeiture proceeding under Minn. Stat. § 609.5314 (1996). We affirm.
An off-duty police officer stopped the respondent vehicle at the scene of a drive-by shooting. The vehicle was occupied by appellant Carlos Blanche and three passengers. As the officer waited for other officers to arrive, he noted that the street surface around the vehicle was "clean." When backup arrived, the officers allowed the occupants to leave the vehicle one by one. After the second passenger exited, police found a bag containing crack cocaine worth $180 on the street beside the vehicle. Police did not see the cocaine fall from the vehicle to the street.
Police seized the vehicle, which was registered to appellant James Blanche, Carlos Blanche's father. A "Notice of Seizure and Intent to Forfeit Property" was issued to James and Carlos Blanche, informing them that the vehicle was subject to forfeiture under Minn. Stat. § 609.5314. They filed timely requests for judicial review of the forfeiture.
After a bench trial, the trial court found that: (1) the vehicle contained cocaine when it was stopped; (2) although James Blanche was the registered owner of the vehicle, Carlos Blanche was the actual owner; and (3) it was not proven that Carlos Blanche was privy to the fact that cocaine was in the vehicle at the time of the stop. Based on its findings, the court concluded that administrative forfeiture under Minn. Stat. § 609.5314 was appropriate. This appeal followed.
This court may set aside a trial court's findings of fact only when those findings are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. We do not defer to the trial court's decision on a purely legal issue. King v. One 1990 Cadillac DeVille, 567 N.W.2d 752, 753 (Minn. App. 1997).
Property associated with controlled substances may be forfeited through either administrative or judicial forfeiture. Judicial forfeiture is commenced under Minn. Stat. § 609.5313 (1996); administrative forfeiture under Minn. Stat. § 609.5314 (1996). The procedural and substantive differences between these two kinds of forfeiture are well summarized in Schmitz v. $40,703.00, 572 N.W.2d 760, 763 (Minn. App. 1997). Because both procedures were enacted in the same act, it is reasonable to infer that the legislature intended to establish the several clearly delineated differences. See 1988 Minn. Laws ch. 665, §§ 13, 14.
A conveyance device (automobile) is presumed to be subject to administrative forfeiture if, at the time it was seized by police, it contained "controlled substances with a retail value of $100 or more if possession or sale of the controlled substance would be a felony." Minn. Stat. § 609.5314, subd. 1(a)(2).
An owner of property that is subject to an administrative forfeiture proceeding may demand a judicial determination of the administrative forfeiture. Id., subd. 3. After this demand, the forfeiture remains administrative, but Minn. Stat. § 609.5314, subd. 3(c), requires that it be conducted under Minn. Stat. § 609.531, subd. 6a. Under that section, the agency seeking forfeiture must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, the act or omission giving rise to the forfeiture. Minn. Stat. § 609.531, subd. 6a (1996).
Appellants argue that there was no clear and convincing evidence that the vehicle contained controlled substances when it was stopped; they point out that the cocaine was found on the street beside the vehicle rather than inside the vehicle. But the police officer who stopped the vehicle noted that the ground was "clean" until the second passenger left the car; only then did the police find the cocaine. The trial court could infer from this testimony, the veracity of which is unchallenged, that the cocaine was inside the vehicle when it was stopped. The trial court's finding that appellants' vehicle contained controlled substances was based on clear and convincing evidence.
Appellants argue that the trial court erred by concluding that they could not, under Minn. Stat. § 609.5314, present an "innocent owner" defense. The judicial forfeiture statute contains an "innocent owner" defense. See Minn. Stat. § 609.5311, subd. 3(d) (1996) (property used to facilitate commerce in controlled substances subject to forfeiture only if unlawful use occurred with owner's knowledge or consent). But Minn. Stat. § 609.5314, the administrative forfeiture statute, does not contain an "innocent owner" defense.
Appellants, citing Rife v. One 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier, 485 N.W.2d 318, 322 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. June 30, 1992), argue that the "innocent owner" defense applies to administrative forfeitures as well as judicial forfeitures. But the court in Rife did not import into Minn. Stat. § 609.5314 the "innocent owner" defense of Minn. Stat. § 609.5311. Appellants' argument fails.
Appellants also argue that they should have been allowed to present an "innocent owner" defense as contained in Minn. Stat. § 609.5311 because the trial court made a factual finding about the ownership of the vehicle. But irrelevant factual findings do not transform an administrative forfeiture into a judicial forfeiture. See Hanka v. Pogatchnik, 276 N.W.2d 633, 636 (Minn. 1979) (where findings necessary for legal conclusion are adequately supported, inclusion of other factual findings has no effect). The trial court did not err, and did not deny appellants due process rights, by rejecting appellants' "innocent owner" defense.