The Innocent Owner Defense: Wait! That’s My Car!


Parent’s have bought cars for their kids for a long time. For our children, the ownership of that first car is a rite of passage in a young person’s life. This is certainly the case here in Southeastern Wisconsin. A good friend of mine just presented his daughter with her first car for her birthday complete with a bow on the hood.

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Parent’s usually elect to retain title to their kids’ vehicles-even when they go off to college. My parents were kind enough to take responsibility for my jalopy, a big Black 1965 Chrysler 300, when I took it to school and parked it in my fraternity parking lot. Think Animal House. That car had every appearance of being my car. But I understood that Dad was paying the bills and it was really his until I could pay for it myself. Not sure I ever did. (Thanks Mom and Dad) but who does the law think owns your kid’s Studebelchfire? At least one Wisconsin court has held that despite registration in a parents name some ownership is limited.

Here’s it played out. A young women took “her” car registered in Daddy’s name to college where it was parked for the school year. She got arrested on drug trafficking charges in the car and the State initiated an action to take it . But it’s Dads, right? WRONG! The court in State v. One 2010 Nissan Altima, 2013AP2176, District 2, 6/11/14 (not recommended for publication) held that defendant was the “owner” for the purposes of the forfeiture law. Her argued he was the “innocent owner” under § 961.55(1)(d)2., which provides:

“[n]o vehicle is subject to forfeiture under this section by reason of any act or omission established by the owner thereof to have been committed or omitted without the owner’s knowledge or consent.”(¶¶3-7, 9).

The court rejected this argument. The court held that the registered owner’s financial stake was not more indicative of ownership than the daughter’s possession and control. Read that again. As a lawyer the case tells me that the innocent owner defense probably only applies to car thefts in the future. As a citizen, this case tells you that the government is once again willing to erode your property rights in order to achieve it’s goals. As a parent, it tells you to think twice before buying junior that car.

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  1. Erin
    June 17, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    How does that reconcile with the DOT’s safety responsibility law–if the car causes property damage to another (and there is no insurance on the car), it is the registered owner who is required to pay.

    • June 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      Great point. It seems the application of this law will be inconsistent in it’s application, or at least consistent in that it will favor the government.

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