[¶ 1] Charles and Diana Audette appeal from a judgment entered in the Superior Court (Waldo County, Mead, J.) granting the State's motion for forfeiture of the Audettes' automobile, pursuant to 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2421 (1996). On appeal, the Audettes contend that the court erred by granting forfeiture of their automobile after it determined that, although the Audettes owned the automobile jointly, Mr. Audette was a "sole owner-operator" within the meaning of 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2421(1). We agree and vacate the judgment.
[¶ 2] For purposes of our analysis, the facts are undisputed. On September 9, 1997, a police officer observed Audette traveling in the left-hand lane of the road at an excessive rate of speed. When the officer pursued Audette and signalled him to pull over, Audette attempted to elude the officer. After finally being stopped, Audette submitted to a breath test at the Waldo County Sheriff's Department. The test revealed a blood-alcohol content of .14%. Audette was arrested for eluding an officer, pursuant 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2414(3) (1996), operating after suspension, pursuant to 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2412-A(1) (1996), operating under the influence, pursuant to 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2411(1) (1996), and failure to stop, pursuant to 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2414(2) (1996). At the time of his arrest, Audette's license was under suspension for a previous OUI conviction. He was indicted on all charges and the State subsequently filed a motion for forfeiture of his vehicle, pursuant to 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2421(1). The court granted Diana Audette's motion to intervene in the forfeiture action.
[¶ 3] Audette pled guilty to operating under the influence, operating after suspension, and eluding an officer,
[¶ 4] The court determined that the Audettes were joint owners of the automobile, each holding "an undivided one half interest in the property." The court then addressed the application of the statute and concluded that the State was entitled to forfeiture of the Corvette.
[¶ 5] Section 2421(1) reads as follows:
29-A M.R.S.A. § 2421(1).
[¶ 6] The court concluded that it could not give meaning to the final paragraph of the section unless that paragraph was interpreted to modify the "sole owner-operator" language of paragraph A to allow forfeiture of a jointly held vehicle except in those cases where the joint owner could establish that she had the right to possession of the vehicle to the exclusion of the defendant. Because Diana Audette's joint ownership did not give her the right to exclude Charles from possession, the court concluded that her joint ownership did not preclude forfeiture.
[¶ 7] Accordingly, the issue presented is whether the final paragraph of section 2421(1) modifies the phrase "sole owner-operator" to include joint owners. "In construing a statute, we look first to the plain meaning of the statutory language to give effect to legislative intent, and if the meaning of the statute is clear on its face, then we need not look beyond the words themselves." Cook v. Lisbon Sch. Comm., 682 A.2d 672, 676 (Me.1996). When the meaning of the statute is ambiguous we will look to legislative history for guidance. See Coker v. City of Lewiston, 1998 ME 93, ¶ 7, 710 A.2d 909, 910. The State argues that the language of the final paragraph, referencing the rights of a third party to possess the vehicle to the exclusion of the defendant creates an ambiguity because it can be read to modify the phrase "sole owner-operator" found in section 2421(1).
[¶ 8] To the extent that an ambiguity is created by that paragraph, we conclude that it does not modify the plain meaning of "sole owner-operator." A brief history of OUI forfeiture laws is instructive. In an effort to address the tragedies resulting from the presence of drunk drivers on the roads of Maine, the Legislature enacted a motor vehicle forfeiture law in 1988, along with several other provisions intended to strengthen the State's approach to drunk driving. The present version of section
[¶ 9] The first forfeiture statute, however, comprised a relatively complex set of procedures. An owner aggrieved by the seizure of his vehicle had the right to an immediate hearing at which he could petition the District Court for the release of his vehicle on a demonstration of hardship, see id. § 1312-G(2), or a claimant in the forfeiture proceeding could prevent forfeiture by demonstrating that hardship to persons other than the operator significantly outweighed the deterrent value of taking the vehicle and any risk to the public caused by the operator's continued access to the vehicle, see id. § 1312-G(5)(F). Moreover, at the defendant's arraignment, several election options were available which, if utilized, could prevent forfeiture of the vehicle. The defendant had the option to surrender the vehicle to the State: sell the vehicle; or, after waiving any claim for damages, allow the State to store the vehicle at no charge until the defendant's right to drive had been restored. See id. at § 1312-G(3).
[¶ 10] In 1990, apparently responding to concerns regarding the complexity of the process and the lack of efficacy of the statute,
[¶ 11] In contrast to the relatively complex process contemplated by the first motor vehicle forfeiture provisions, the revamped provisions are simple and straightforward. The simplicity of the new process, however, is accompanied by significant restrictions on the circumstances under which forfeiture can be ordered.
[¶ 12] In order to obtain forfeiture of a vehicle under the revised statute, the State is required to prove the following facts:
[¶ 13] Once the State has proved each of those facts, the court is required to order the forfeiture, unless the elements of the final paragraph of section 2421(1) are satisfied by another person.
[¶ 14] Although Audette had been convicted of both applicable crimes and there was no dispute that he had been operating the Corvette in the commission of those crimes, the court specifically determined that he was not the sole owner of the Corvette. The State therefore failed to prove an element necessary for forfeiture: that Audette was the "sole owneroperator" of the Corvette. The court was not required to determine whether Diana's interest allowed her to exclude Charles from possession of the Corvette. The fact that Charles owned the Corvette jointly with Diana precluded forfeiture.
[¶ 15] In sum, the Legislature, in an effort to strengthen and streamline the process for forfeiture of vehicles used by repeat OUI offenders, limited the court's authority to order forfeiture to those vehicles owned solely by the impaired driver. The Corvette at issue here was owned jointly by Diana and Charles Audette. Accordingly, the court erred when it granted the State's motion for forfeiture of the jointly owned Corvette.
The entry is:
Judgment of forfeiture vacated.