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Couple argues against vehicle forfeiture

The Winnebago sits in the county's impound lot pending a court ruling as to whether it should be forfeited in a DWI case. The registered owners of the vehicle are fighting the seizure. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Jason Adam Hill2 / 2

A forfeiture case argued in Hubbard County District Court Thursday illustrates the heartbreak families suffer trying to get troubled children on a path to success.

Wayne and Jodi Lynn Hill appeared before Judge Robert Tiffany to argue for the return of the family's motor home, which was seized in an administrative forfeiture action following their son's DWI arrest in September. The Hills are seeking $6,000 in conciliation and a judge's declaration the seizure was illegal.

The county said the forfeiture was legal under state law and Hills are not entitled to any damages arising from the seizure, nor the motor home's return.

"The concern my office has is if we return the vehicle he'll drive it," Assistant Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden told the Hills, who acted as their own counsel.

"He could have killed someone," Frieden added. "We're not trying to be mean. There are public safety reasons."

Jodi Lynn Hill angrily disagreed. She and her husband interrupted the court proceedings several times until Tiffany admonished them.

Minnesota allows forfeiture of vehicles used in the commission of crimes, but also allows "innocent owners" to reclaim their property.

"I'm taking the innocent owner defense," Jodi Lynn Hill told the judge. "We had no idea he'd be drinking and driving. He didn't drink in our house."

Frieden argued the Hills were not entitled to use the defense. They knew their son's troubled history of DWI arrests and that he had mental health issues that went untreated, yet still entrusted their Winnebago to him for his sole use, he told the court. The forfeiture serves the interest of public safety, Frieden argued.

"He was driving the wrong way on Highway 2 in a comatose state," Frieden told the court. "The fact that he didn't kill anyone is a miracle."

Jason Adam Hill, 28, was arrested Sept. 16 when he was driving the wrong way on the divided U.S. Highway 2.

Officer Adam Williams took the witness stand to describe the harrowing incident. A squad car was used as a stopping block to get the RV under control, he testified.

"He squealed the tires and left long black marks (on the pavement) trying to stop," Williams testified.

The deputy found an open drink by the driver's seat and numerous beers in the camper.

Williams testified Jason Hill had been living in the motor home all summer and had been making payments on it, which the parents angrily denied, accusing the officer of lying.

Williams maintained his composure as he testified that Jason Hill led him to believe he was purchasing the vehicle, even though it was registered in the parents' name.

Jason Hill refused to take an alcohol test at the scene and fought with officers on the way to jail, his criminal complaint states. "He kicked the back window and door frame of the squad car, causing damage," the complaint indicated.

Jason Hill was charged with two counts of Second Degree DWI, Open Bottle and Fourth Degree Criminal Damage to Property. A charge of Driving Without Insurance was resolved, Williams testified.

The Hills testified they were aware of their son's past arrests, but when he took a new job with Knife River in North Dakota and seemed to be getting his life back together, they loaned him the motor home to drive to work. That was April 2011.

"If I'd known he was drinking I would have highballed it out there and grabbed that vehicle," Wayne Hill testified.

"What parents wouldn't help their kids out? I thought he was changing his life," the anguished father said

Both Hills testified Jason was "a good kid."

But Frieden argued they nevertheless turned the Winnebago over to their son and essentially relinquished control and ownership of the RV to Jason.

The couple estimated the RV was worth $3,000 to $3,500, but an external generator was worth an additional $1,500.

"He (Jason Hill) had the vehicle exclusively," Frieden told the court. "They have not met the burden of being innocent owners. They gave him exclusive control over the vehicle, knowing he had drug and alcohol problems. There's no way to ensure he won't get the vehicle back and he'll kill someone next time."

"The state gave him a license," Jodi Lynn countered.

The dejected couple, who received the used motor home from Jodi's parents as a gift in March 2011, said they retained ownership through the maintenance of the vehicle and cost of repairs, which Wayne Hill made himself.

"We shouldn't be deprived of it because he used it without our consent, drinking and driving," Jodi Lynn Hill argued. She read from the Minnesota statute, indicating owners can lose the innocent owners defense "only if the owner knew of the unlawful use," she added. The couple didn't, they both maintained.

"He needed a vehicle to drive to work," she said.

Tiffany said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling soon.

Frieden said it was a sad case.

"My office appreciates that they love their son," he told the court.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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