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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Poisonous Fruit & Civil Forfeiture: A New Rule in Minnesota

The exclusionary rule, barring from inclusion in a criminal trial any evidence unlawfully obtained, has long been the law in Minnesota.  In 2014 we witnessed the court’s extension of the rule to civil forfeiture cases for the first time, but new legislation that took effect August 1 may have robbed the decision of much of its significance.

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy.”

—Henry Ford

To those uninitiated in the exclusionary rule, let us begin by saying that it is a thing.  To be more specific, it is a legal invention that allows for the exclusion at trial of otherwise admissible evidence in cases where the police or other government agents have violated a person’s constitutional rights.  Take the following example: If a police officer breaks down my door for no other reasons than to compare

horoscopes, bake lefse, and listen to “Sussudio” by Phil Collins (a trifecta of ancient pastimes shared by nearly all peace officers), the stolen stereo equipment he discovers will be excluded from my criminal trial because the warrantless search was unlawful.

Conceptually, the principle now known as the exclusionary rule dates back to the courts of England, when Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was solidifying his excellent posterity—which is to say, sometime in the 1700s.  It was the era of Jack the Painter and bright liveries, an era that predated the hansom cab, so it was a creditable providence exercised by the English jurists in establishing such a fundamental tenet of the law.  But it is not the ambition of this humble note to give a complete history of the damned thing.

In 1914, in Weeks v. United States, the United States Supreme Court announced what has been called by Wikipedia a “strong” version of the exclusionary rule, excluding papers and articles that were seized in violation of the 4th Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.1  In 1961, the Court held in Mapp v. Ohio that the exclusionary rule was binding upon the states through the due process guarantee of the 14th Amendment.2  So we have the rule.  And like an air mattress, it comes in handy from time to time.

Minnesota Exclusive

Minnesota courts have long applied the exclusionary rule.  It was awfully nice of them.  They’ve been doing it ever since they were told they had to by the highest court in the land.3  Presently, the Minnesota case law reporters are replete with all manner of post-Mapp search and seizure cases: the name Rasmussen is so entrenched in the day-to-day of practitioners that it is thrown from their mouths like a veritable breath.  But it was not until 2014 that Minnesota finally did what the Supreme Court did in Plymouth Sedan in 1965: adopt the application of the exclusionary rule in civil forfeiture cases.4

In August of this year, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided the case of Garcia-Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe (only lawyers could contrive a system in which a man sues his car with a serious face).5  It was one of those big cases that draws out the amici in waves and causes a great stir of paper activity in St. Paul for several months, the type of case that everyone raises a stink about in blogs, like that unmentionable case involving the Irishman from Missouri that everyone got a kick out of for a while.6  Be all that as it may, Garcia-Mendoza is an important case.  And I’m not just saying that.  It was the first time in Minnesota that the exclusionary rule—traditionally a limb of the criminal system—was expressly adopted for use in civil forfeitures.

Question of Authority

On March 19, 2012, Garcia-Mendoza was stopped for speeding on Interstate 94 in the city of Plymouth.  An officer conducted a registration check on the vehicle and learned that the registered owner was a Ricardo Cervantes–Perez.  After being stopped, Garcia-Mendoza gave the officer a Mexican ID card that identified him as Ricardo Cervantes-Perez.  Garcia-Mendoza admitted that he did not have a Minnesota driver’s license.  The passenger in the vehicle also did not have a driver’s license.  Garcia-Mendoza was issued a citation for driving without a Minnesota driver’s license.  The issuing officer decided to have the vehicle towed because neither occupant could drive the vehicle and the location of it created a potential traffic hazard.  During an inventory search of the vehicle, officers discovered 225.9 grams of methamphetamine.  I don’t know what that looks like but it sounds like a lot.  The Chevy Tahoe and $611 in cash were seized for forfeiture.  Garcia-Mendoza later filed a civil forfeiture complaint in state district court demanding a judicial determination of the forfeiture.7

And then Garcia-Mendoza had that judicial determination.  He argued that the evidence supporting the forfeiture was illegally obtained and must be suppressed because the stop and search of his vehicle was unlawful.  The district court agreed that the stop and search were unlawful, but it determined that the legality of the stop and search were irrelevant to the forfeiture proceeding.  The district court then granted the government’s motion for summary judgment.  On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed, declining to extend the exclusionary rule to civil forfeiture cases.8  The court of appeals correctly noted that no Minnesota case had previously applied the exclusionary rule to civil forfeiture actions, and that as an error-correcting court, it was without authority to change the law.9

Anomaly Omitted

On review at the Minnesota Supreme Court, Garcia-Mendoza renewed his argument in favor of an exclusionary rule in civil forfeitures.  This time he prevailed.  The court formally adopted the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Plymouth Sedan. The Minnesota Supreme Court borrowed the Supreme Court’s reasoning that “a forfeiture proceeding is quasi-criminal in character” and “[i]ts object, like a criminal proceeding, is to penalize for the commission of an offense against the law.”10  To that end, “it would be anomalous to apply the exclusionary rule in the criminal case against the owner of the car, but then not apply it in the civil forfeiture case based on the same facts.”11

In deciding Garcia-Mendoza, the court did not engage in the at-length type of policy-based balancing discussions witnessed in previous cases discussing the why and how of the exclusionary rule.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Indeed, there would be no reason to do so.  The rule is well-defined.  It’s even well-fed.  Given that the United States Supreme Court applied the rule to civil forfeitures as far back as when the Beach Boys appeared on Shindig!, it was probably enough for our own state supreme court to say simply that the rule exists.  It’s a step in the right direction.  The exclusionary rule at its core is a necessary tool in the collective belt of a free people.  It is the single and so-far unparalleled deterrent to unlawful police conduct.  But Garcia-Mendoza may not be that big of deal after all.

Much Ado?

Recent years have born witness to singular episodes of police over-reaching and abuses in cases of civil forfeitures.  The Minnesota Legislature recently modified the forfeiture statutes greatly in favor of persons deprived of their property.  As of August 1, 2014, the government can prevail in a forfeiture proceeding only if “a person is convicted of the criminal offense related to the action for forfeiture.”12  If a person has a sound case for exclusion in their criminal case, they may avoid a conviction altogether, thereby entitling them to victory in the forfeiture matter as a matter of statutory right.  If the person is never charged, the forfeiture likewise cannot proceed in the government’s favor.  In many cases, Garcia-Mendoza may have arrived just in time to be completely useless.


 

Adam T. Johnson is a criminal defense attorney at Meshbesher & Associates, PA, in Minneapolis.  He can be reached at adam@stevemeshbesher.com


Notes

1 Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914).

2 Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961).

3 See, e.g., State v. Pluth, 195 N.W. 789 (Minn.1923); City of St. Paul v. Stovall, 30 N.W.2d 638 (Minn.1948) (post-Weeks decisions declining to extend exclusionary rule to cases involving action undertaken by state agents).

4 See, One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693 (1965).

5 852 N.W.2d 659 (Minn.2014).  The full case title is Garcia-Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe, VIN No. 1GNEC13V23R143453, Plate No. 235JBM.

6 See, Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 757 (2013).

7 See, Minn. Stat. §609.5314, et seq.

8 Garcia-Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe, A13-0445 (Minn. App. 11/25/2013).

9 Id., slip op. at 3.

10 Garcia-Mendoza, 852 N.W.2d at 666 (quoting Plymouth Sedan, 380 U.S. at 700).

11 Id.

12 Minn. Stat. §609.531, Subd. 6a.

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