It’s an odd turn of events when somebody steals your car, wrecks it, and then law enforcement tries to seize your insurance payout using the very laws meant to protect you and others who have done nothing wrong. But a recent court case in Minnesota involved just such an incident of the troubling legal process known as civil forfeiture, which is criticized widely for distorting law enforcement’s priorities. And it has some innocent Americans feeling thankful that someone—i.e., a Minnesota state court—is dutifully watching the watchmen.
This entire case hinges on an innocent, unsuspecting victim of somebody else’s misconduct and law enforcement’s response in accordance with the bad incentives in state law that allow agencies to keep forfeited proceeds.
When Russell Briles and his wife went away on a camping trip in 2015, his son got drunk, took Briles’ GMC Terrain sport utility vehicle without the father’s knowledge or permission, and totaled it. After the crash, Savage, Minnesota police officers arrested Briles’ son, seized the vehicle, and notified Briles of their intent to forfeit it under the state’s impaired-driver forfeiture law. As the SUV was now wrecked, Briles had no interest in recovering it and instead planned on collecting compensation from his automobile insurance policy. Thus, even though he was entitled to retrieve the SUV as an innocent owner, he opted not to dispute the forfeiture.
But the forfeiture devil was in the (hidden) details.
The insurance policy on the SUV never came up in any exchange between Briles and law enforcement. But without informing Briles, the police department’s attorney told his insurer to hold the insurance policy’s proceeds, implying that the money rightly belonged to the department because of the uncontested SUV forfeiture. Briles only discovered this communication after the 60-day deadline—an amazingly narrow window—to challenge the forfeiture passed.
Fortunately, the judges of the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected law enforcement’s efforts to extend potentially forfeitable property to insurance proceeds. The court’s ruling acknowledged the 60-day deadline had passed on the SUV itself but held that law enforcement had no right to Briles’ insurance money, as it was plainly not covered by the forfeiture law. In other words, the court held that Briles was right all along—he could legally forego a pointless fight over a totaled vehicle and just collect the insurance claim he was owed.
This case serves as another powerful reminder that the cost of everyday Americans’ fundamental property rights is eternal vigilance against misbehaving government, particularly a government with a financial incentive.