Blight and Abandoned or Unattended Vehicles

06/16/2016 / Inga Schuchard

Abandoned motor vehicles constitute a hazard to the health and welfare of the people of Minnesota. According to the state of Minnesota, and many local municipalities, abandoned vehicles can harbor noxious diseases, furnish shelter and breeding places for vermin, and present physical dangers to the safety and well-being of children and other citizens. Minnesota law declares abandoned motor vehicles and other scrap metals to be a blight on the landscape and a detriment to the environment. Minn. Stat. § 168B.01. A “blight” is something detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community. In April 2016, the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided a matter concerning a vague municipal blight ordinance, and reversed Renee Anita Vasko’s misdemeanor conviction of violating the same. State v. Vasko, No. A15-1172, 2016 WL 1551666 (Minn. Ct. App. April 18, 2016).

There are a variety of reasons why property owners should know how to lawfully have an abandoned vehicle removed from their property. One reason is that some local ordinances, like the Lester Prairie, Minnesota ordinance invoked in the Vasko Case, make it a misdemeanor offense for a property owner to allow abandoned motor vehicles to remain on their property.

Minnesota law defines when a vehicle is abandoned by the location of the vehicle and also by the operational status of the vehicle. Specifically, there are three ways a vehicle may qualify as being abandoned: (1) it unlawfully remains on public property for more than 48 hours; (2) it remains on private property without the consent of the property owner (if the private property is a single-family or duplex residential property, or other residential property with proper signage posted, it does not matter how long the vehicle sits there; even if not properly posted, a vehicle left on nonresidential commercial office property is abandoned after 24 hours); or (3) a vehicle lacks vital component parts or is otherwise in an inoperable condition (unless it is kept in an enclosed garage or storage building). Law enforcement officers and towing authorities may impound any abandoned vehicle.

In addition to State law, cities also have ordinances concerning abandoned vehicles. For example, the city of Minneapolis has an ordinance classifying a vehicle as abandoned if it remains on any street or highway for more than 72 hours. Also, a Minneapolis ordinance provides that, if a vehicle lacks vital component parts, it can be presumed abandoned and can be immediately removed and impounded.

St. Paul’s blight ordinance states, among other things, that a vehicle is abandoned if it is left illegally on public property for more than 48 hours; is left on private property without the property owner’s consent for more than 48 hours; is left outside in an inoperable state or lacking vital component parts for more than 48 hours; or is without current license plates for 90 days. In St. Paul, no person in control of private property may allow an abandoned motor vehicle to remain on their property.

The city of Lester Prairie, Minnesota’s municipal code (LPMC) also has a municipal blight ordinance which prohibits anyone from keeping a “junked or abandoned” vehicle on private property “for a period in excess of 30 days without a special use permit granted by the city council.” A vehicle is junked or abandoned in Lester Prairie if it is inoperative or does not have current license plates or registration tabs. The LPMC also sets forth a procedure for the city clerk or police department to follow to notify “the owner and the occupant” of the property where the abandoned vehicle is located. After blight is found to exist, the city clerk or police department must notify the owner and the occupant of the property where the abandoned vehicle is located in writing to remove it from the property within ten days after service of the notice. Failure to comply with such notice is a violation of the ordinance.

On Sept. 5, 2014, the Lester Prairie police chief observed a vehicle with an expired registration tab parked in Renee Anita Vasko’s front yard. The vehicle was registered to Vasko and another person. The police chief sent a warning letter by regular mail to Vasko. Vasko did not respond and did not move the vehicle. The police chief then sent a certified letter to Vasko on Sept. 11. It was unclaimed and was returned to the police chief. On September 29, the police chief posted a letter on Vasko’s door asking Vasko to remove the vehicle within ten days and stating: “If the unregistered or inoperable vehicle remains after 30 days of service of this notice the vehicle will be removed from the property.” The police chief did not provide notice to the other registered owner.

The police chief observed that the vehicle was still on Vasko’s property on Oct. 2, and he had the vehicle towed on Oct. 24. Vasko was charged with, and later found guilty of, a misdemeanor violation of Lester Prairie’s municipal blight ordinance. Her sentence was to pay a $100 fine. She appealed the verdict.

The saga ended with the Court of Appeals reversing Vasko’s misdemeanor conviction and sentence. State v. Vasko, No. A15-1172, 2016 WL 1551666 (Minn. Ct. App. April 18, 2016). The Court of Appeals determined that the police chief had improperly given notice of the blight before it came into existence by operation of law. The police chief gave the notice before the “30-day blight-creation period” had expired. The court concluded that he should have waited at least 30 days after first observing the vehicle on Sept. 5 before providing the 10-day removal notice. He ultimately gave “notice” of something that didn’t yet exist. Further, under the ordinance, the police chief needed city council action to have Vasko’s vehicle towed.

In addition to abandoned vehicles, law enforcement officers can impound unattended vehicles. Under Minnesota law, law enforcement officers may immediately impound unattended vehicles left on private single-family or duplex residential property, or any other residential property or private nonresidential property if properly posted. The abandoned motor vehicles statutes do not define “properly posted.” Practically, however, a readily visible sign designating parking stalls as private property for authorized vehicles only, and identifying that unauthorized vehicles will be towed at the vehicle owner’s sole expense, is likely sufficient. After 24 hours, law enforcement may impound an unattended vehicle left on private nonresidential property, even if not properly posted. A special rule exists for nonresidential property which operates for the servicing, repair, or maintenance of motor vehicles. On that type of property, the property owner must give five business days’ notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the vehicle owner notifying them of the property owner’s intentions to have the vehicle removed from the property. Only after that period can law enforcement officers impound unattended vehicles on such property.

Blight statutes, and their notice provisions, vary from city to city, and are generally more restrictive than Minnesota’s statute. Property owners should make themselves familiar with applicable state law and local ordinances so they can ensure their own compliance with the laws and be able to properly facilitate enforcement of the laws in case they discovery an unauthorized or abandoned vehicle on their property.