Friday, October 10, 2014

Court Has Inherent Authority To Hold Miller Hearing To Determine Whether Juvenile Should Be Sentenced to Life Without Possibility of Release

State v. Ali, Minn.S.Ct., 10/8/2014.  When Mr. Ali was a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday he shot and killed three men during a robbery of the Seward Market in Minneapolis.  There were a couple of warm up issues addressed in this appeal but the main act was what to do about the sentences that the trial court meted out to Mr. Ali.  That sentence was life without the possibility of release for one of the homicides and two consecutive life with possibility of release after thirty years sentences for the other two homicides.  With the court’s answer it’s shaped up to be a really bad week for juveniles who have been sentenced to life without possibility of release.

First, the life sentence without possibility of release.  Two days before this Opinion came out, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the question whether Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which says that sentencing schemes that mandate life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide is unconstitutional, is retroactive. In Minnesota that's the Roman Nose case, read here. Miller said that courts had to take into consideration the individual factors of the juvenile in front of them before locking them up forever. Admittedly, Tony Rome was a procedural mess but with Chambers inexplicably bowing out it was as good a Minnesota case as any to answer the retroactivity question.  The Supreme Court apparently had other cases before it on the retroactivity question, which they also declined to hear

At the time that the trial court sentenced Mr. Ali, the pertinent statute said that for anyone convicted of designated crimes the court “shall sentence a person to life imprisonment without possibility of release”.  Minn.Stat. 609.106, subd. 2(1) (2012).  So, without further ado that’s what the trial court did. 

Mr. Ali's case has been on appeal in one form or another ever since so there’s no retroactivity headache; he gets the benefit of Miller.  So, the question becomes, what is that benefit?  There were two competing answers to that question.  The state said to send the case back to the trial court to conduct an ad hoc Miller hearing.  Mr. Ali said, no, the last constitutional sentencing scheme before Miller called for a “regular life” sentence, that is, one that provided for the possibility of release after serving thirty years.  The Minnesota Supreme Court sides with the state and turns the trial court loose to craft some sort of "Miller" remedy that it sees fit.  It does so even though there’s no longer a constitutional statute that authorizes a judge to give a juvenile life without possibility of release. 

The majority, lead by Chief Justice Gildea, admits that the current statute, which says that the trial court shall impose a sentence of life without possibility of release for designated homicides runs afoul of Miller and is therefore unconstitutional. The last constitutional statute that applies to Mr. Ali’s crimes only authorizes a life sentence with the possibility of release after thirty years. In similar situations, the court has reinstated that last constitutionally valid statute. So, when they struck down a statute that allowed public defenders to decline representation of indigent defendants who had pleaded guilty and received less than the presumptive sentence, the court's remedy was to dig out the previous version of the statute and run with that. Deegan v. State, 711 N.W.2d 89 (Minn. 2006)   Not so, here, however.

The majority relies upon State v. Chauvin, 723 N.W.2d 20 (Minn. 2006), the case that said that courts had the inherent authority to empanel sentencing juries to find aggravating factors after Blakely said that judges couldn’t do that anymore.  The dissenters, Justices Page and Stras, said that the flaw in that approach was that nothing in Blakely changed the trial court’s authority to impose an aggravated sentence; it just changed the method by which that could occur.  Miller, on the other hand, eliminated a a court’s authority to mandate life without release sentences for juveniles, and try as it might, the legislature had not come up with a new sentencing scheme.  The dissenters argued that the effect of the majority’s Miller remedy was to amend the statute by replacing “shall” with “may for juveniles” impose a life without possibility of release after some sort of ad hoc hearing

Both dissenting justices would reinstate the last constitutional statute,which would impose a life sentence with possibility of release after thirty years.  Justice Page points out that since Miller the legislature has wrestled with what statutory scheme should be enacted to comply with Miller but hasn’t enacted a single word.  Just what the legislature has in mind is a total mystery, including whether it still wants to authorize a life without possibility of release for juveniles.  Justice Page also strongly suggests that  it may be constitutionally required under Blakely to have a jury determine the facts on which the court then makes this release/no release decision. 

Justice Stras reprises most of what he’s previously had to say about inherent judicial power and then takes on the majority’s reliance on Chauvin:

The court’s conclusion that the remedy in Chauvin is similar to the remedy in this case makes an apples-and-oranges comparison. An apple sounds like an orange when it is described as a sweet-tasting fruit that grows on a tree and has seeds. And while it is true that these are shared characteristics of both fruits, the fact remains that an apple is not an orange, and this case is not Chauvin. The court is correct when it says that Chauvin provides authority for the proposition that a court has the power in certain circumstances to make a procedural decision about which factfinder—the judge or the jury—will make a particular finding, but the court’s comparison falls short when it uses Chauvin to support its chosen remedy in this case. Chauvin simply did not involve a situation in which we were required to change the Legislature’s prescribed sentence for an offense so that the statute could pass constitutional muster. In concluding otherwise, the court confuses apples and oranges.

This is all potentially bad enough for Mr. Ali, this ad hoc Miller hearing, but there’s more.  The court also sentenced Mr.Ali to two consecutive “regular life” sentences on the other two homicides.  This means that Mr. Ali has to serve sixty years before he could be considered for release on these two sentences.  This is known as a “virtual life” sentence.  And not one justice dissented from the majority’s conclusion that the trial court had not abused its discretion in stacking these two regular life sentences.  The U.S. Supreme Court has also so far been uninterested in addressing this “virtual life sentence” issue for juveniles. 

A closing note on one of the “preliminary acts,” having to do with the authentication of Mr. Ali’s Kenyan birth certificate.  From the very beginning of the litigation Mr. Ali disputed his age, arguing that he should not have been automatically certified to stand trial as an adult.  He submitted a birth certificate from the appropriate District Registrar in Kenya, which bore the registrar’s seal and a signature by the registrar.  The defense also submitted an unsigned letter from the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., which stated that the birth certificate “bears the Seal of the Registrar of Births and Deaths of the Republic of Kenya.”  Both the trial court and the supreme court reject the birth certificate as not self authenticated under Rule 902(3)A).  Unlike its willingness to read the homicide sentencing statute’s “shall” as really being “may” the court takes a very strict view of the requirements of Rule 902 for self authenticating a foreign document.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Trial Court Has Authority to Decide Evidentiary Challenge To Chain of Custody By Pretrial Hearing

State v. Farah, Minn.Ct.App., 9/29/2014.  An undercover cop bought 5.5 grams of cocaine from Mr. Farah.  The cop wrote in his report that the drugs were a “white, powdery substance.”  A few days later the BCA received 4.869 grams of a “rock-like material/powder.”  The BCA tester said that the “rock-like material” contained cocaine.  The undercover cop, when he got the stuff back from the BCA, wrote that he placed the “rock-like material” into an evidence locker.

Powder or rock?  That’s what defense counsel for Mr. Farah wanted to know.  She filed a pretrial motion asking for the chain of evidence records; actually, asking how does 5.5 grams of “white, powdery substance” become 4.869 grams of a “rock-like material”?  That’s one  hell of a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machine.  The trial court held a hearing on the motion at which the prosecutor characterized the motion as a challenge to probable cause.  The judge, however, said, no, that the hearing was about an evidentiary issue:  the chain of custody foundation for admission of the evidence.  Eventually, the trial court excluded the evidence.

So, can the trial judge make a chain of custody determination before trial?  Turns out the judge can.  Evidence rule 103(a) says that the trial court may make a ruling to admit or exclude evidence “either at or before trial.” 

The remaining question, then, is whether the trial court correctly ordered the exclusion of the drugs.  Just as the trial judge called it, this is an evidentiary issue so it’s a discretionary call.  The officer who bought the drugs described them initially as a “white powdery substance” but after that the description became “rock-like material”.  The state never explained this morphing of the drugs.  On that record, the trial judge did not abuse its discretion by ordering the exclusion of the drugs. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Post Conviction of False Trial Testimony Sufficient To Require Evidentiary Hearing

Caldwell v. State, Minn.S.Ct., 9/24/2014.  in this his third post conviction petition, Mr. Caldwell alleged that three witnesses at his trial presented false testimony.  The post conviction court summarily denied the petition without a hearing.  Justice Stras, with Chief Justice Gildea and Justice Dietzen dissenting, sends the petition back for that evidentiary hearing.

In support of his claim of false trial testimony Mr. Caldwell presented a transcript of a statement by each witness, and an affidavit from the investigator who conducted the interviews which affirmed that each statement was a true and correct transcription of the recorded interview.  Now, to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing Mr. Caldwell’s petition had to contain more than “argumentative assertions without factual support;” and the petition must recite sufficiently trustworthy allegations that would, if proven, entitled a petitioner to a new trial.  Justice Stras says that Mr. Caldwell met the first requirement because of the sworn affidavit from the investigator that the transcript of the actual interview of the witnesses was true and correct.  At what is essentially a proffer state of the proceedings, the justice seems to ask, what else can a petitioner do?

On the second requirement, the majority and the dissent of Justice Dietzen just disagree about, well damn near everything:

In reversing the post conviction court, the majority dismisses crucial portions of the record, misconstrues the relevant case law, and misapplies the standard of review. Carnell Harrison and William Brooks did not recant their trial testimony or state that they did not testify truthfully at trial. Instead, when asked whether they testified truthfully at trial, Carnell stated he could not remember and Brooks did not answer the question.

Justice Stras gets more votes and so the petition gets sent back for an evidentiary hearing.  Lots of footnote sniping.

Court Rejects Challenge To In-Court Identification and Affirms Exclusion of Expert Witness Testimony on Eye Witnesses Identifications

State v. Mosley, Minn.S.Ct., 9/24/2014.  Following a bench trial, the trial judge convicted Mr. Mosley of three counts of first degree premeditated murder, and then imposed three consecutive life sentences without possibility of release.  On appeal, Mr. Mosley raises two questions about eye witness identifications.

The first question is about an in court identification by one of the state’s witnesses.  This witness saw a black male wearing a sweatshirt with a grey hood and stripes over the shoulders riding a bicycle in front of the house where the homicides occurred.  She witnessed this and some additional actions by this same black male just shortly before the shooting deaths.  Only during her trial testimony, however, did she state that the person she had seen was Mr. Mosley; no one had conducted an identification procedure before trial.  Justice Dietzen, writing for the entire court, rejected Mr. Mosley’s due process challenge to this in court identification because it had not been the product of any state action.  Perry v. New Hampshire, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 716 (2012). 

Mr. Mosley also said on appeal that the in court identification violated Rule 403 of the Rules of Evidence because it lacked reliability and unfairly prejudiced him.  Because Mr. Mosley had not made this precise objection at trial – he made only the due process objection – the court reviewed this claimed error under harmless error analysis.  Because admission of most all evidence is a discretionary call by the trial judge, Justice Dietzen easily enough concludes that there had been no abuse of that discretion and thus there was no error.  Reliability of identification testimony, the Justice says, goes to the weight of the identification evidence and not its reliability.

The second question is about admission of expert testimony on eyewitness identification.  In a rather nostalgic trip down memory lane – back to  State v. Helterbridle, 301 N.W.2d 545 (Minn. 1980), the court concludes that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to admit such testimony.  Helterbridle, confidently told everyone – before the onslaught of wrongful convictions started coming to light, most of which were based on faulty witness identifications – that such safe guards as cross examination, jury instructions and arguments of counsel are more than adequate to prevent the improper use of eye witness identifications.  Most incongruous in this conclusion is the double standard utilized for eye witness experts and for “rape myth” experts in rape cases where consent is the defense.  Whereas in rape cases where consent is the defense the court has been satisfied with allowing experts to testify generally to so called “rape myths,” for eye witness identifications, Justice Dietzen says that the expert’s testimony must relate to the particular circumstances of the identification under attack.  What this means is that the defense must be prepared to present a proffer that is specific to the case on trial.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Departure In Assault Conviction Based Upon Victim Injury Okay Where Defendant Has Prior Conviction Involving Injury

State v. Meyers, Minn.C.App., 9/15/2014.  Since the adoption of the Guidelines it’s always been the case that a departure from the presumptive sentence cannot be based upon an element of the offense of conviction.  State v. Osborne, 715 N.W.2d 436 (Minn. 2006).  This is not to say that flanking maneuvers to avoid this rule have ceased.  Far from it.  Indeed, there’s one successful flanking maneuver – the subject of this appeal – that’s right in the Guidelines.  Section II.D.2.b(3) says that a valid ground for departure exists when:

“[t]he current conviction is for a [c]riminal [s]exual [c]onduct offense or an offense in which the victim was otherwise injured and there is a prior felony conviction for a [criminal [s]exual [c]onduct offense or an offense in which the victim was otherwise injured.

A jury convicted Mr. Meyers of assault in the first degree from the stabbing of A.C.  This stabbing caused a ten inch knife wound that penetrated her liver and adrenal gland; and she also sustained permanent nerve damage to her thumb from a separate cut.  An element of first degree assault is “substantial bodily injury.”  Mr. Meyers argued that because injury was an element of the offense that injury could not also be used to support a departure notwithstanding the language of the above Guidelines section.

As well as the Supreme Court opinion, State v. Peake, 366 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1985).  Mr. Meyers sought to distinguish this case by two more recent ones.  in the first, State v. McIntosh, 641 N.W.2d 3 (Minn. 2002), the supreme court threw out a departure under the “major controlled substance offense” provision which is based, in part, on the quantity of drugs.  The court had cautioned courts about using the quantity of drugs to support a departure.  In the other case, State v. Thompson, 720 N.W.2d 820 (Minn. 2006). the supreme court threw out a departure in a theft by swindle over $35,000.00 conviction where the amount of the swindle had been really over $35,000.00. 

The court here says that the Guidelines provision in play “is not duplicative in its consideration of victim injury.”  (Fact of injury becomes “consideration” of injury, something of a re-wright of the language of the Guidelines.)  That’s because injury is actually is a limitation on the applicability of this aggravating factor provision.  The court can only impose a departure when the current conviction is for a crime that involved injury to a victim, and the defendant has a previous conviction for a crime involving injury to a victim.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

9/17/2014: No Supreme Court Criminal Published Opinions

But, worth a quick read:  In re the Guardianship of:  Jeffers J. Tschummy, Ward.  Minn.St.Ct. 9/17/2014, wherein Chief Justice Gildea and Justice Stras hurl vituperative footnotes at one another.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

No Abuse of Discretion In Denying Evidentiary Hearing on Post Conviction Petition

Lussier v. State, Minn.S.Ct., 9/10/2014.  Mr. Lussier pled guilty to first degree murder while committing domestic abuse for the stabbing death of his wife.  During the plea hearing, Mr. Lussier admitted that during an argument with his wife he struck her at least once.  He then said that he picked up a knife intending to take his own life but instead unintentionally stabbed his wife during a struggle over the knife.  To shore up the plea, the state introduced the grand jury transcript, something to which Mr. Lussier did not object.  Mr. Lussier then agreed that at a trial witnesses would have testified “much in accordance with the grand jury testimony.  In fact, Mr. Lussier hadn’t seen that transcript.

After a while, Mr. Lussier filed a pro se motion to withdraw his plea, saying that it was manifestly unjust because the plea was not accurate, intelligent or voluntary.  With the assistance of counsel he later added that neither the plea hearing nor the grand jury transcript established a factual basis for finding a “past pattern of domestic abuse” or “ extreme indifference to human life”, both of which are elements of the offense.  The post conviction court denied the petition and the supreme court upheld that denial.  Lussier v. State, 821 N.W.2d 581 (Minn. 2012). 

Mr. Lussier then filed this second post conviction petition.  He restated his claim about the guilty plea, and he added a claim that his post conviction attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to request an evidentiary hearing.  This time, the post conviction court denied the petition, saying that the challenge to the plea was procedurally barred and that there were no disputed facts on the effectiveness claim that entitled him to a hearing.

Applying the Knaffla rule, Justice Stras affirms the denial of the repeated claim about the guilty plea.  On the effectiveness of counsel claim, the court observes that the only facts that had a bearing on whether his plea lacked an adequate factual basis were the facts established by and contained within the record itself, which included the grand jury transcript and the transcript of the plea hearing.  There were no other facts in need of presentation at the post conviction stage that necessitated an evidentiary hearing.  For that reason, Mr. Lussier cannot prevail on is ineffectiveness of counsel claim.

Removing Package From Airport Sorting Conveyor Was Not an Unlawful Seizure. Dog Sniff of Package Was Not a Search

State v. Eichers, Minn.S.Ct., 9/10/2014.  An airport narcotics officer pulled a package off the UPS conveyor belt for reasons that you can read about here.  The officer put the package amongst a pile of other packages and had his drug sniffing dog “seek dope.”  Which the dog did, alerting only to this package.  Eventually, Mr. Eicher’s claimed the package whereupon authorities arrested him and charged him with first degree drugs.

He moved to suppress the drugs.  He said that grabbing the package off the conveyor belt was a seizure and that the dog sniff was a search, neither of which was supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion.  The court of appeals said that pulling the package off the belt and placing it on the floor amongst other packages was a seizure because the officer thereby asserted dominion and control over it.  That court also said that the dog sniff required a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity under the Minnesota Constitution.  Even so, no federal or state constitutional violation occurred because the officer had a reasonable articulable suspicion that ht package might contain contraband. 

Justice Anderson, writing for all but Justice Page who did not participate, upholds the denial of the suppression motion but for different reasons.  The first question that the court looked at was whether there had been a seizure of the package.  Justice Anderson said that the test to determine that question is whether there is a meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interest in the property.  The Justice looked to an Eighth Circuit opinion, United States v. Va Lerie, 424 F.3d. 694 (8th Cir. 2005), which identified three factors bearing on the question of a “meaningful interference”:

1) the detention of property impacted a person’s freedom of movement; 2) the detention delayed timely delivery of the property; and 3) law enforcement deprived the carrier of custody of the property.

The court adopts this test.  Looking to the facts, the court concludes that there was no meaningful delay in timely delivery; indeed, officers attempted a controlled delivery the same afternoon following its discovery at the airport.  The court found no infringement of any possessory interest that Mr. Eichers enjoyed by grabbing the package off the belt and setting it on the floor.  His interest in the carrier maintaining custody of the package was infringed, but not until after the dog sniff, which established probable cause.  What that boils down to is that there was no cognizable seizure of the package when the officer removed it from the conveyor belt and put it on the floor for the dog to sniff.

That gets us to the dog sniff.  The court concludes that a dog sniff of a mailed package which reveals only contraband, does not compromise any legitimate expectation of privacy under both the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 10 of the state constitution.  The sniff was thus not a search.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Exigent Circumstances Supported Warrantless Blood Alcohol Testing

State v. Stavish, Minn.Ct.App., 9/2/2014.  Law officers and various other first responders went to the site of a one car rollover crash.  There were beer cans in and about the truck that had rolled over.  There was a dead body.  There was Mr. Stavish, who needed medical attention, and who said that he had been driving, that he didn’t know how many people had been in the truck, and that he should not have been doing what he was doing.  Officers sent him off in an ambulance to the hospital, with a trooper in tow with instructions to get a blood draw from him at the hospital.  The trooper accomplished his task but did not get a warrant before doing so.

The state charged Mr. Stavish with vehicular homicide.  Nearly a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S. Ct. 1552 (2013).  Mr. Stavish moved to suppress the blood alcohol reading (.20), saying that it had been taken without a warrant in violation of McNeely.  The trial court granted that motion and the state appealed that ruling.

The court of appeals continues in its pursuit of imaginative “exigent circumstances” to justify warrantless blood alcohol testing.  The “virtual search warrant” from Bernard is under assault in the supreme court.  This time around, the court looks at what presumably were the “facts ono the ground” to conclude that there were exigent circumstances other than the metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream to support a warrantless blood draw.  In fact, there were three:  The trooper was, first off, investigating a more serious crime than “an ordinary DWI charge” in play in McNeely.  Moreover, the medical treatment that Mr. Stavish was at the hospital to get might either affect or invalidate the blood alcohol test.  And, there was the possibility that Mr. Stavish would be medevac'd to another hospital before anybody could put a needle in him and draw blood within the two hour statutory limit.

The state continues to push the adoption of the good faith exception to the warrant requirement, something near and dear to Justice Stras.  See State v. Brooks, 838 N.W.2d 563 (Minn. 2013).  Having come up with a plausible list of “exigent circumstances” the court of appeals found no need to venture down that path.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Decision to Tow Vehicle That is Lawfully Parked & Not Impeding Traffic Which Belonged to Driver Who Is Not Under Arrest Is Unreasonable Under Fourth Amendment

State v. Rohde, Minn.S.Ct., 8/20/2014.  An officer saw a Monte Carlo drive away from a house that he suspected hosted a drug trade.  This officer knew from some other officer that people involved in drug trafficking at this house “might be riding in a Monte Carlo.”  But, apparently, not this Monte Carlo because the plate number did not match the information from these other officers.  Nonetheless, as luck would have it, this Monte Carlo’s registration had been revoked and the registered owner’s driver’s license had also been revoked.  This officer asked yet another officer to stop the Monte Carlo.  This officer followed the Monte Carlo until it committed a “signaling violation” at which point the officer stopped the car.  Ms. Rohde was driving the car.  Ms. Rohde pulled to the side of a residential street; it was neither interfering with traffic nor blocking access to any property.  In other words, it was parked legally.

The Monte Carlo did not have insurance, so the officers decided to tow the vehicle, a decision based on a department policy to tow any vehicle that did not have insurance.  The officers detained Ms. Rohde while they completed the paperwork but they were not planning on taking her into custody.  When the officers did the inventory search, Ms. Rohde’s bad day got worse; the officers found methamphetamine.

The state charged her with fifth degree drug possession.  Ms. Rohde moved to suppress the drugs found in the Monte Caro.  She did not challenge the initial stop but said that the search violated the Fourth Amendment and the state constitution’s counterpart because the officers were not authorized to impound the Monte Carlo and because the inventory search was pre-textual.  The trial court denied the motion and found her guilty on a stipulated facts trial.  The court of appeals affirmed, State v. Rohde, 839 N.W.2d 758 (Minn.Ct.App., 2013).  Justice G. Barry Anderson, for the full court, concludes that the impoundment was unreasonable and thus the subsequent inventory search was unconstitutional.

Justice Anderson says that an impoundment is proper only when the state’s interest in impoundment outweighs the individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.  See State v. Gauster, 752 N.W.2d 496 (Minn. 2008).  He states these reasons that would justify an impoundment:  To remove a vehicle that is impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience; and To protect an individual’s property from theft and the police from claims of theft.  The Justice concedes that state law prohibits an uninsured vehicle from remaining on a public roadway.  That, however, is wide of the mark because the Fourth Amendment reasonableness test is the determining factor because a state statute might authorize an unconstitutional search.  See Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58 (1967).  The officers conceded that the Monte Carlo was not violating any parking laws, impeding traffic, or posing a threat to public safety.

As to any caretaking function – prevention of theft and the like – until the officers found the drugs they had not planned on arresting Ms. Rohde.  She was present during the inventory search and thus retained control over the vehicle; there was thus no reason for the police to take responsibility for the vehicle.  State v. Robb, 605 N.W.2d 96 (Minn. 2000).  Indeed, the officers had already allowed Ms. Rohde to call her Mom to come get her, so,presumably the two of them could figure out what to do about the car on their dime and not the state’s. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fourth Amendment Exclusionary Rule Apples in Civil Forfeiture Actions

Garcia-Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe, Minn.S.Ct., 8/20/2014.  Procedurally, this is a messy, really messy case.  The facts are reasonably straight forward, as is the holding of the court.  In a few words, the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment applies to forfeiture actions.

Police saw Mr. Garcia-Mendoza’s vehicle moving down I-94 at just a hair over the speed limit.  The officer ran a a registration check for the vehicle but when the officer then ran a license check for the registered owner he got nothing back.  The cop then stopped the vehicle in the belief that the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Which was correct, at least for Mr. Garcia-Mendoza and his passenger.  Since no one could drive the car and it didn’t appear safe to the officer to leave the car on the break down lane of the interstate the officer called for a tow; alas, the inventory search incident to the two produced methamphetamine, a lot of it. 

Both the state and the feds charged Mr. Garcia-Mendoza with drug crimes.  Mr. Garcia-Mendoza moved in federal court to suppress the drugs as the fruit of an illegal stop and search.  The federal court rejected that claim and thereafter Mr. Garcia-Mendoza pled guilty.  As part of his plea he agreed to forfeit the vehicle.

Meantime, the state filed a forfeiture action against the vehicle.  Mr. Garcia-Mendoza made the same objection, saying that the cops had discovered the legal justification for the forfeiture – the drugs – as a result of a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  That meant that under the exclusionary rule the drugs should be suppressed at which point there was no longer a legal basis to grab the vehicle.  The trial court upheld the forfeiture by pointing to Mr. Garcia-Mendoza’s federal plea agreement to allow just that forfeiture.  As an aside, the trial court said that the stop and search of the vehicle had, indeed, violated the Fourth Amendment. 

The court of appeals affirmed the district court, but not on the basis of the federal plea agreement.  Rather, that court affirmed the district court by concluding that the exclusionary rule did not apply to forfeiture actions, and that the state statute presumed that the vehicle was to be forfeited, a presumption that Mr. Garcia-Mendoza did not rebut. There were other issues lurking in the bushes in both the trial court and court of appeals, but the supreme court plucked out only the applicability of the exclusionary rule for review.

Justice Dietzen somewhat regrettably it seems acknowledges that the court must follow a U.S. Supreme Court opinion from 1965 that said that the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment applies to civil forfeiture actions brought under the federal forfeiture statute.  One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693 (1965).  The Justice, writing for the entire court, declines the state’s invitations to ignore this Plymouth Sedan case, invitations based upon the withering away of the exclusionary rule since 1965.

Having reached that conclusion, the court sends the case back to the court of appeals to sort through the detritus left along the side of the road, which include:

(1) appellant is collaterally estopped from relitigating the determination of the federal district court that the March 19 stop and search did not violate appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights; (2) appellant’s factual admissions in the federal guilty plea agreement in which he agreed to give up his rights to property obtained as a result of his drug trafficking offense provide an independent basis for forfeiture of the seized property; (3) appellant’s exclusive remedy to suppress the challenged evidence is Minn. Stat. § 626.21 (2012) (“A person aggrieved by an unlawful search and seizure may move . . . to suppress the use, as evidence, of anything so obtained . . .”), but appellant waived that remedy by not asserting it; and (4) the district court erred when it observed in dictum that the March 19 stop and search violated appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

These guys are just getting started.  Start your engines, indeed.

Self Defense “Duty to Retreat” Extends to Common Hallways of Secure Apartment Building

State v. Devens, Minn.S.Ct., 8/20/2014.  At about midnight, Mr. Devens heard loud noises coming from the hallway of his secured apartment building.  Mr. Devens went out to see what all the commotion was about and found J.P. down at the end of the hall.  Mr. Devens went down to J.P.’s location and asked him to leave.  After some hesitation, J.P. agreed to the request.  However, as the two were walking to the exit Mr. Devens surmised from J.P’.’s attempt to punch him that J.P. had developed second thoughts about leaving.  J.P., not surprisingly, said that Mr. Devens had started the fight.

The state sided with J.P. and charged Mr. Devens with assault in the first and third degree.  The court dismissed the first degree charge for lack of probable cause but the jury convicted Mr. Devens of third degree assault, rejecting his claim of self defense.

Over objection, the trial court instructed the jury that Mr. Devens had a duty to retreat if reasonably possible.  Mr. Devens said, wait a minute.  I’m in my own “home” – a secured apartment building – and so I don’t  have any duty to retreat.  Justice Lillehaug, for the entire court, says that he does.  Although one’s “home” is one’s “castle” the hallways of one’s “home” – the actual apartment to which you have exclusive right of control (with some landlord exceptions not pertinent) – are not one’s “home”.  The court said that the key to determining whether a particular location is part of one’s home for self defense purposes is the extent to which that individual exercises exclusive possession and control over the area in question.  Because that exclusive possession and control did not include the common hallways, the duty to retreat remained intact.  It apparently did not matter at all that the hallway was not open to the public and was supposed to be secure.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Waiver of a Jury Trial is Charge Specific; a Valid Waiver Obtained Before the State Amends The Complaint With Additional Charges Does Not Carry Over to Those New Charges.

State v. Little, Minn.S.Ct., 8/13/2014.  The state charged Mr. Little with one count of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree, and one count of criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree.  At some point before trial, Mr. Little waived his right to a jury trial on these two counts; everyone agreed up and down the line that the court had obtained a valid personal waiver from Mr. Little.  Then, right before trial, the state amended the complaint to add a count of first degree criminal sexual conduct.  Mr. Little’s attorney told the judge, in Mr. Little’s presence, that his client still waived his right to a trial by jury.  The judge said fine, heard the proof and found Mr. Little guilty.

In the court of appeals, Mr. Little challenged the absence of a personal waiver to a jury trial on the added CSC I count.  The court of appeals rejected that challenge and affirmed the conviction.   In an opinion by Justice Page, writing for six members of the court – Justice Stras concurred in part and dissented in part – the Supreme Court reverses the conviction and remands for a new trial.

Justice Page goes back to an 1893 case, McGeagh v. Nordberg, 53 Minn. 234, 55 N.W. 117 (1893) that says that a jury trial waiver only applies to the issues formed at the time of the waiver.  The Justice can find no reason to apply a different rule in criminal cases.  So, a defendant may waiver his right to a jury trial on the charges then in front of him, but if the state thereafter piles on additional charges there must be another personal waiver from the defendant.  In reaching this result, the court rejected the state’s argument that all that a defendant needs to understand about waiving a jury trial is the general concept of what a jury trial looks like.  Not good enough.  When  the state amends a complaint after a defendant’s jury trial waiver, the trial court must obtain a renewed waiver – personally from that defendant and not his lawyer – on the amended complaint.

That part was fairly easy, so much so that even Justice Stras concurred in that part of the opinion.  But, then the court has to decide what the remedy is, tricky because Mr. Little did not object to the omitted personal waiver.  Indeed, he stood by silently while his attorney made that waiver for him.  The absence of a trial objection asks the question, what standard of review to apply.  The state and the defense differed on just what standard of review should apply to this error:  plain error or “structural error.”  If it’s structural error then Mr. Little immediately advances to go, gets a new trial without any regard to prejudice from the error.  If it’s plain error, then Mr. Little has to establish that the error, besides being “plain” affected his substantial rights.  Justice Page ducks that fight all together by saying without deciding that Mr. Little was entitled to a new trial under plain error analysis.

Mr. Little easily gets past the first two requirements of plain error.  There was error, and it was plain because of this nineteenth century civil case.  Justice Page concludes that on the facts of this case that Mr. Little met the substantial rights requirement as well.  Those facts convinced the court, except for Justice Stras, that there were significant concerns whether Mr. Little and his counsel had fully discussed the advantages and disadvantages of waiving a jury trial after the state added the CSC I count.  Indeed, Mr. Little may not even have been aware of the additional count according to what he said to the pre-sentence investigation officer.

As mentioned, Justice Stras concurred in the conclusion that failure to have obtained an additional personal waiver was error.  Justice Stras dissented over the standard of review and over the grant of a new trial.  Justice Stras dons his cap and gown, picks up a piece of chalk and proceeds to lecture the other members of the court on the various standards of review of trial error.  He scolds them for not taking up the gauntlet of just exactly which standard of review should have been applied in this instance, and points out why it should be plain error.  The Justice just doesn’t like these messy short cuts of utilizing a particular standard of review without really saying whether it’s the correct one to be employing.  Justice Stras’s take on plain error leaves Mr. Little sitting in prison.  The Justice thought that Mr. Little needed to have shown that he would have chosen a jury trial had the trial court questioned him about the waiver on the new charge.  Result over process.  Justice Page focused on the process, concluding that it would be sheer speculation to try to second guess what Mr. Little might have done in the face of a valid waiver inquiry.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Evidentiary Rulings on Spreigl & Relationship Evidence, Even If Error, Were Harmless

State v. Rossberg, Minn.S.Ct., 8/6/2014.  A jury convicted Mr. Rossberg of the first degree premeditated murder of Devan Hawkinson.  Before Mr. Rossberg shot Mr. Hawkinson six times with a .22 firearm the two of them were friends.  Indeed, the rumor in the trailer park where the two lived was they were having it on with the same woman, D.T.  Anyway, eventually, Mr. Rossberg became less and less enamored of this arrangement to the point that he began behaving rather inappropriately toward Mr. Hawkinson.  There was lots of back and forth between the two men leading up to Hawkinson’s death.  The woman in this triangle sometimes lived at Mr. Rossberg’s trailer, sometimes at Mr. Hawkinson’s trailer, and sometimes back with her husband.

The trial court allowed the state to introduce evidence of several incidents of prior bad acts, some of which were Spreigl evidence, and some of which were “relationship” evidence.  Justice Anderson distinguished these two kinds of “prior bad acts” evidence.  Spreigl evidence is prior bad acts evidence of an unrelated crime or bad act against another person not the present victim.  “Relationship evidence” is prior bad acts between an accused and a victim that illuminates the history of the relationship between the two individuals.  These evidentiary rulings by the trial court are the subject of Mr. Rossberg’s appeal.

The Spreigl evidence pertained to testimony about a 911 call from D.T. in which she reported that Mr. Rossberg might be suicidal because she had heard a gunshot from his trailer.  The trial court had admitted this testimony because it believed that it was relevant to the “disputed fact” of whether Mr. Rossberg had committed the homicide; and was relevant to whether he was in possession of the weapon used to commit it.  Justice Anderson rejects this explanation.  Whether Mr. Rossberg committed the homicide was not really a “disputed fact” but the ultimate issue of guilt.  Essentially, the court is saying that if whether Mr. Rossberg committed the homicide is a State v. Ness, 707 N.W.2d 676 (Minn. 2006) “disputed fact” then it swallows Ness in one gulp.  Whether Mr. Rossberg possessed the murder weapon is a specific fact but not one that was in dispute.  This is because Mr. Rossberg, himself, had reported the theft of the gun.  Unfortunately for Mr. Rossberg, Justice Anderson goes on to conclude that this error was harmless. 

The rest of the evidence that the trial court admitted was “relationship” evidence.  Here’s the court’s description of this evidence:

two 911 calls from September 2008, in which D.T. reported that Rossberg might be suicidal and that he was yelling and pounding on Hawkinson’s door; Rossberg telling his son that he would hurt Hawkinson if Hawkinson got too close to D.T.; Rossberg’s statements to his friend about wanting to kill Hawkinson with a machete; Hawkinson’s neighbor seeing Rossberg repeatedly pounding on Hawkinson’s doors and windows; one of Hawkinson’s black eyes and Rossberg’s admission that he caused it; the two 911 calls from November 2008 about Rossberg yelling, pounding on Hawkinson’s door, and entering Hawkinson’s trailer; and Rossberg’s statement in fall 2010 about wanting to shoot Hawkinson with his .22.

Most of these “relationship” evidence events were old.  The court said, however, that age isn’t enough.  Rather, the court employs a “balancing process as to time, place and modus operandi” to determine whether older conduct remained relevant.  The court upheld the admission of testimony of these events because it illuminated Mr. Rossberg’s ongoing confrontational behavior toward Mr. Hawkinson and the continuing strained relationship between the two men. 

Mr. Rossberg also complained on appeal about the admission of evidence about two statements that Mr. Hawkinson made to the police.  In the first statement, Mr. Hawkinson said that he knew that Mr. Rossberg owned guns and said that he was afraid that Mr. Rossberg would shoot him.  The challenge to the admissibility of this statement was on evidence rules, not the Confrontation Clause.  Under a plain error review of any confrontation clause challenge, the court ducks the question by concluding that if there were an error it was harmless because it didn’t affect his substantial rights. 

In the second statement, Mr. Hawkinson said the he was afraid of Mr. Rossberg, that Mr. Rossberg had come into his trailer even though the door was locked, and that he didn’t want Mr. Rossberg to come back.  The court said that the reported statement that Mr. Rossberg had entered Mr. Hawkinson’s locked trailer came closest to affecting the verdict, but not close enough.  This was because there was other undisputed evidence that Mr. Rossberg knew where Mr. Hawkinson hid a spare key.  The court does say that evidence that Mr. Hawkinson was afraid of Mr. Rossberg was not relevant because Mr. Rossberg did not raise a self defense claim.  The error in admitting this evidence was, again, harmless.