License Plate Impoundment in Minnesota: What You Should Know

Under certain drunk driving circumstances, the state of Minnesota has the authority to seize, impound, and destroy license plates from a motor vehicle. Pursuant to Minnesota Statute section 169A.60 (Administrative Impoundment of Plates), the Commissioner of Public Safety may issue a license plate impoundment  order for:

  • A first offense DWI if the blood alcohol level (BAC) is 0.16 or higher
  • A first offense DWI if there is a passenger in the vehicle under 16 years of age
  • Any DWI if the driver has a prior DWI or other alcohol-related license revocation within the past ten years
  • Driving without a valid driver’s license (section 171.24) by someone whose license was revoked under section 171.04 for posing a danger to public safety.

The Impoundment Process

In practice, the arresting police officer, acting on the Commissioner’s behalf, may directly issue an impound order. When plates are impounded, the officer will issue a permit for temporary vehicle licensing to enable the vehicle’s operation while subject to the impound order.

Special plates may be issued if:

  • The driver obtains a limited driver’s license and applies for special plates.
  • The driver has a household member or other individual who has a valid driver’s license and who needs to drive the vehicle.

These special, post-impoundment plates have specific letters to alert police officers and are commonly referred to as “whiskey” plates because they usually start with the letter “W”, thus earning them their nickname.

Until 2003, law enforcement officers were permitted to stop any vehicle with a whiskey plate for any reason to investigate whether the vehicle was being lawfully operated; however, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled this practice as unconstitutional and in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illicit searches and seizures. Whereas the mere existence of a whiskey plate cannot provide the sole reason for a police officer stopping the vehicle, these vehicles tend to be under heightened scrutiny with officers justifying any small reason as grounds to warrant traffic stop.

Obtaining New License Plates

When a driver with a revoked license regains his or her full driving privileges, s/he can apply for new regular license plates for vehicles s/he legally owns after one year as these impoundments last for a minimum of one year

If the plates were impounded from a vehicle not owned by the arrested driver, the vehicle’s owner may apply for new regular license plates by filing a sworn statement attesting to the facts and circumstances of the impoundment. Also important is that impoundment can apply to more than one license plate—it can extend to any vehicle owned, leased by, or registered to the offender, either alone or jointly with someone else.

Mistaken Impoundment

Invariably, situations may arise where license plates are impounded by accident or there may be a situation in which a legal technicality renders impoundment improper. In these cases, the subject of the impound order may dispute the validity of said order. Such disputes are heard in either administrative reviews or judicial reviews; the only difference is that a judge presides over the latter. In many cases, a license plate impoundment judicial review is conducted along with an Implied Consent Hearing to contest the validity of a driver’s license revocation.

Because of the low success rate of administrative reviews, most attorneys recommend requesting a judicial review. Any petition for a judicial review must specifically explain why the impoundment order should be reversed. Of primary importance is that the individual requesting the review submit the necessary forms within 30 days of receiving the notice and order of impoundment.

If you or a loved one is facing license plate impoundment action, or for more information, please contact us.