State v. Harris., Minn.S.Ct., 5/24/2017. When Minnesota appellate courts review a conviction that is based on circumstantial evidence - in whole or in part - it is one of a handful of states that applies a different standard of review than for convictions based upon direct evidence. Under this separate standard of review the appellate court identifies "the circumstances proved and independently consider the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those circumstances, when viewed as a whole. State v. Andersen, 784 N.W.2d 320, 329 (Minn. 2010." Those inferences "as a whole must be consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of guilt. State v. Fox, 868 N.W.2d 206, 223 (Minn. 2015).
A jury convicted Mr. Harris of being in possession of a firearm even though he's not supposed to be doing that. In an unpublished opinion the court of appeals reversed that conviction, saying that the state had failed to present sufficient evidence to prove it. The state asked the Supreme Court to review the case and to abandon this separate standard of review. In a 5-2 opinion, Justice G. Barry Anderson declines that invitation, much to the annoyance of Justices Lillehaug and McKeig who dissented:
When we review convictions, we apply one standard for convictions based on direct evidence, and we apply another standard for convictions based on circumstantial evidence. And we have avoided announcing a definitive standard for review of convictions based on both kinds of evidence.
This confusing dichotomy between how we expect juries to decide cases and how we review their decisions has existed for almost 90 years. Nine decades of confusion is long enough. Evidence is evidence. Minnesota should join the appellate courts of the United States, 41 other states, and the District of Columbia in adopting a unified standard of review.
Oh, and the facts? That's what's got the state really, really pissed off:
The circumstances proved that implicate Harris include: (1) on the night of March 4, 2014, Harris was driving a car, J.A. was sitting in the front passenger seat, and K.E. was sitting in the rear seat; (2) there was an active warrant for J.A.’s arrest; (3) after securing backup assistance, the police officer assigned to execute the arrest warrant activated the lights and siren on his vehicle; (4) Harris continued driving between 30 and 35 miles per hour for about three blocks after the officer activated his lights and siren; (5) the officer saw movement in the car; (6) when the police officer searched the car, he noticed that the headlining had been pulled down near the sunroof, to the right and slightly behind the driver’s seat, creating a small void; (7) the officer saw an object, which he clearly recognized as the butt end of a silver handgun, wedged in this void between the headlining and roof of the car; (8) a mixture of male and female DNA from five or more people was recovered from the firearm; and (9) subsequent DNA testing concluded that none of the occupants of the vehicle could be excluded as contributors to the DNA mixture found on the firearm, but 75.7% of the general population could be.
The state said that if these facts weren't enough to uphold the jury's conviction then the Court was "eviscerating" the construct of joint-constructive possession. Justice Anderson seems unfazed by this plea, basically throwing out some homilies in response:
We recognize that courts must be cautious in addressing the sufficiency of evidence in a joint constructive possession case. Constructive possession is a legal concept that permits an inference that the defendant possessed an item found in a place in which others had access when “there is a strong probability (inferable from other evidence) that defendant was at the time consciously exercising dominion and control over it.” Florine, 226 N.W.2d at 611. In addition, two or more people can constructively possess an item jointly. Lee, 683 N.W.2d at 316 n.7. In a joint constructive possession case, the circumstances proved need not support a reasonable inference that the defendant actually possessed the item. Instead, the circumstances proved must support a reasonable inference that the defendant, singly or jointly, was at the time consciously exercising dominion and control over the item. The circumstances proved also would have to be inconsistent with a reasonable inference that the defendant, singly or jointly, was not consciously exercising dominion and control over the item at the time in question.
Even more infuriating to the state, Mr. Harris actually conceded in the court of appeals that "reasonable inferences to be drawn from the circumstances proved [were] that [he] knowingly possessed the gun before it was hidden in the liner." Again, the Justice sweeps this aside:
Because we conclude that, when viewed as a whole, there are rational hypotheses other than guilt consistent with the circumstances proved, we need not address the impact, if any, of Harris’s attempt to reframe his earlier concession.