Category Archives: Constitutional Rights

Jesus as Criminal Defense Lawyer: The Woman Accused of Adultery

What can we learn about criminal law from the story of the Jesus and The Adulterous Woman in John Chapter 8 of the New Testament?  We can learn about what criminal defense lawyers do.  We can learn about the laws of evidence.  We can learn about a jury’s right and power to sentence.  We can learn about connecting persuasively with people.  First, the story from John Chapter 8:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?” They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.

Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, Lord,” she answered.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

John 8:1-11 HCSB

Christ and the woman caught in adultery, Pieter Brueghel the Younger's oil on panel version of c. 1600

Christ and the woman caught in adultery, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s oil on panel version of c. 1600

What do criminal defense lawyers do?

In this story, Jesus shows us what criminal defense lawyers do.  We defend the human being accused of a crime, facing a punishment if convicted of a crime under the laws.  In this case the crime was adultery and the punishment for a person convicted under the laws could be death – death by a group of people throwing stones at you until eventually dead, a death by torture.  No doubt the law and the proscribed punishment were designed to deter the criminal behavior.

The accused person could testify on her own behalf, though throughout our legal history at times the accused has not been allowed to testify due to presumed lack of credibility.  But even with the right to testify on her own behalf, having an advocate speak for the accused gives her a better chance of being heard, fairly.  Here, Jesus speaks for her, and advocates for her life.  This is the most important thing a criminal defense lawyer does.  It is our sacred duty, our sacred honor.

The outcome sought by the advocate for the accused is the one desired by the accused.  Anything else would make us not an advocate, unethical or a failed advocate.

The means of achieving that outcome is our knowledge of the law (including the law of evidence and the law of jury power), and our ability to connect with people persuasively.

The laws of evidence. 

The laws of evidence in the early twenty-first century United States can be traced back to the time and place of Jesus, and earlier.  Jesus knew the laws well.

The laws of Moses required that before someone could be sentenced to death there must be two or more witnesses to the crime – a rule against hearsay, a right of confrontation, and a corroboration rule. Deuteronomy 19:15.  One accusing witness was not enough to trigger the death penalty.  Deuteronomy 17:6. Jesus and the crowd were told (“they said to him”) that the woman was reportedly “caught in the act.” Yet there is no witness or witnesses identified nor is there any witness testimony. This would make a death penalty illegal under the law.

Had there been two or more witnesses present to accuse and claim to be witness to the woman’s adultery, the law proscribed the death penalty for both the woman and the man. Deuteronomy 22:22 (“If a man is discovered having sexual relations with another man’s wife, both the man who had sex with the woman and the woman must die”).  Where is the man? How do we know the man is not any one of the men in the de facto jury?  The prosecutors do not have the man who they claim committed adultery with the woman.

After the accusers all have left, Jesus asks a legal question: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  With no accusers remaining, our attention is drawn to the requirement of eyewitnesses to the crime before guilt could be established and a sentence imposed. Jesus’ statement: “Neither do I condemn you” can be interpreted to mean that Jesus was no eyewitness to any claimed behavior of the woman, especially in the context of what came before, concerning the lack of the legal requirement of eyewitnesses.

One interpretation of the story can be that Jesus gained her acquittal by skillful use of the laws accepted by the jury.

A jury’s right and power to sentence

We should note here that it is not at all clear that the woman was put on trial in the formal, proper manner proscribed by the laws of the time and place.  The contrary appears more likely (not unlike the Trial of Jesus, later).  And yet, we can still use the story to illustrate the jury’s traditional right and power to sentence.

Whether a proper, lawful trial or not – the accusers were urging a death by torture sentence be carried out by the crowd, right there on the spot.  Jesus, acting as the woman’s advocate, invoked not only the law and its requirements; he also made a direct appeal to the right, the discretion, and the power of the de facto jury to refuse to convict her.  Today we have many terms for this including jury lenity and jury nullification.  Jury lenity is the jury’s right to be more lenient than the law requires.  Jury nullification is the right or power of the jury to acquit a person (not-guilty verdict) even where it believes the accused was lawfully proven to have violated the letter of the law.  As often is the case, it is difficult to know whether the de facto jury walked away after the appeal of Jesus in deference to the laws of evidence or out of compassion.  But when Jesus said: “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her,” was this not a plea for compassion?  His later statement to her: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore,” implies that perhaps she did sin, but either lawful proof was lacking, or both he, the jury, and the accusers were blessed with compassion for her.  If so, this could have been an appeal to jury nullification or lenity, as well as an appeal to follow the laws of evidence and of a fair trial – either or both.

Connecting persuasively with people.

The ancient Greeks, Aristotle, spoke of ethos, pathos, and logos as the paths of persuasion.  Clearly the ethos of Jesus was also on trial.

“Ethos” is an appeal to ethics – a means of convincing someone of the character or credibility of the persuader – here Jesus.  After all, Jesus had returned there again to teach his gathered students, writing on the ground.  The scribes and the Pharisees then brought a woman before him and his students and accused her of adultery demanding her death, “to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.”  It seems the poor woman may have been a pawn in a game designed to destroy the ethos, the credibility of Jesus to his students.

The description of his behavior shows Jesus’ confidence.  He is a teacher, interrupted as he is writing on the ground.  He is addressed with respect.  (Ethos goes both directions.)  He listens with respect.  He makes his short argument on her behalf, then resumes writing on the ground quietly, waiting for the people for do the right thing.  We see social mirroring.  We see the invocation of shared values and laws.  He is connecting.  Jesus makes good use of his ethos to persuade.

“Logos” is an appeal to logic – a way of persuading an audience by reason.  Jesus has pointed out the lack of an eyewitness, the lack of corroboration by two eyewitnesses, the unlawful hearsay accusation, the lack of an identified male accused adulterer (“caught in the act?”) , the lack of confrontation of witnesses — all contrary to law.  These are all appeals to logic, that the proposed conclusion is not proven under the law by the evidence supplied by the prosecutors.

“Pathos” is an appeal to emotion – a way of convincing an audience of an argument by eliciting an emotional response.  “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus challenges each listener to publicly declare that he or she is without sin.  He equates being the first to throw a stone at her with being the first to publicly declare being without sin – impossible for an honest person.  This challenge pierces right to the heart of any human being, requiring us to shift focus away from the accused woman, and to look inside to search within ourselves instead.  He correctly asks the jury to question whether the issue is really about them, not the lady accused.  She is not “the other:” they are like her – connected by something in common.  He inspires them to be greater than who they might have been, the low identity they had been invited to assume by the prosecutors.

Thomas C. Gallagher is a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer, interested in both history and the law.

The Necessity Defense for Medical Marijuana Patients – 2015 Minnesota Proposed Legislation HF 542 – SF 404 Redux

The problem:  In Minnesota today, a medical marijuana patient charged with a marijuana crime is no longer allowed by the courts to tell the jury they were treating illness with marijuana.

shhhhThe solution:  A Bill in the 2015 Legislature would legislatively overrule the court decision that took away “the necessity defense” from medical marijuana patients facing marijuana charges.

Marijuana has been used as effective medicine for thousands of years.  In the 1930s, Minnesota joined a social experiment of Prohibition outlawing the plant – even for medical use. Today though, a majority in the U.S.A. believe that medical marijuana should not be a crime.

Trial by jury limits the power of the government to enforce laws in ways that violate the conscience of the community.  Yet when a chronic pain patient using marijuana as medicine is charged with a marijuana crime, but is not permitted to have their physician testify, or to testify about it themselves; there is no meaningful jury trial.  When the court prevents the jury from hearing defense evidence, excluding the defense, her right to present a defense is violated.

“Necessity” has been a recognized legal defense to what otherwise would be a crime, since ancient times. The New Testament cites examples of eating holy bread through necessity of hunger or taking another’s corn. Mathew 12:3-4. Old English cases recognize the defense of necessity. It was a defense to breaking a law that the accused committed the act to save a life or put out a fire. A person did not commit the misdemeanor of exposing an infected person in public if the person was being carried through the streets to a doctor.

  1. Like self-defense, the necessity defense is an affirmative defense to a criminal charge – a “lesser-of-two-evils” defense. After the accused presents evidence supporting the defense, the judge instructs the jury on the law of the defense of necessity.  If the jury accepts the defense: the defendant did the prohibited act intentionally, but did so reasonably to avoid a greater evil, out of necessity; so it is not a crime.
  2. The necessity defense was repealed by a 1991 Minnesota court decision, in State v. Hanson, 468 NW 2d 77 (Minn Court of Appeals 1991). FFI: http://wp.me/pAFjr-5U
  3. The Minnesota Legislature can restore the rights to a jury trial and to present a defense by passing HF 542 & SF 404. The Bill restores the necessity defense to medical marijuana patients charged with a marijuana crime.  Jurors have the right to know the relevant facts before judging a person’s fate.
  4. People like Angela Brown, and her 15 year-old son, should be allowed to present a necessity defense at her trial, so the jury can then have the power to decide her case based upon the true facts, not some version of the truth manipulated by the court.

Urge your Minnesota Rep. and State Senator to support the necessity defense Bill,  HF 542SF 404, to assure medical patients have the “right to introduce evidence or testimony of a medical need to use, … or [evidence of] a benefit derived from the use” of marijuana or derivatives.

Marijuana Medical Necessity: Why Minnesota Needs a New Law Affirming Your Right to Present a Medical Necessity Defense to a Marijuana Charge

Minnesota needs to adopt a new statute affirming your right to present the defense of medical necessity to a marijuana criminal-charge.  Why?

Marijuana, or cannabis, has been used by humans as medicine for thousands of years successfully for relief and treatment of disease.  Modern medical research, as well as clinical practice, has proven its efficacy in relieving symptoms as well as curing diseases — from the bothersome all the way to cancer.

Marijuana had never been a crime.  But beginning in the 1930s in the United States, as the alcohol Prohibition regime was disintegrating, a new experiment in Prohibition was being developed to replace it — the marijuana Prohibition.  Marijuana was widely used as medicine at the time, and its medicinal use persisted for decades but was eventually driven underground after increased criminalization policies in the United States, and in Minnesota.  Its use, including medical use, continued but was made criminal.

Necessity has been a recognized legal defense to what otherwise would be a crime, since ancient times.  In The Defense of Necessity in Criminal Law: The Right to Choose the Lesser Evil some of this history is summarized:

The English courts stated the principle of necessity in 1551 in Reninger v. Fagossa (1 Plowd. 1, 75 Eng. Rep. 1): “A man may break the words of the law, and yet not break the law itself … where the words of them are broken to avoid greater inconvenience, or through necessity, or by compulsion.” The case cites the New Testament example of eating sacred bread through necessity of hunger or taking another’s corn. Mathew 12:3-4. Older English cases contain many examples which recognize the general principle of necessity. It was a defense to breaking a law that the person committed the act to save a life or put out a fire. Jurors could depart without the permission of the judge in case of emergency. Prisoners might escape from a burning jail without committing a crime. A person did not commit the misdemeanor of exposing an infected person in public if the person was being carried through the streets to a doctor.

The necessity defense is sometimes called the lesser-of-two-evils defense.  It is a justification type defense.  If the defense is accepted by the jury, it does not mean the defendant did not intentionally do the prohibited act, but rather that he or she reasonably did so to avoid a greater evil, out of necessity.  It is a common law defense — old and widely accepted.  Like many other common law defenses, it has often been codified in statutes over the past several decades, in many jurisdictions.

med-mj-mn-signThe term “medical necessity defense” is a special application of the more general, necessity defense.  If you are sick with glaucoma or cancer and marijuana provides you with relief or cure, even though marijuana may be a crime to possess or grow in some states, you may decide that preserving your health (or your child’s life) is a greater necessity than complying with the criminal Prohibition.  The majority of people in the United States today, according to poll after poll, agree that medical use of marijuana should not be a crime.  As a result it is likely that many if not most jurors may share that majority view, that medical marijuana is not a real crime.  But in Minnesota jurors are not currently empowered to decide cases with all of the evidence.

Since you are constitutionally guaranteed the right to a jury trial, and the right to present a complete defense — to present the jury with your true defense, for the jury to do with it as it will —  how could it be that the Minnesota appellate courts have so far held that you have no right to present a medical necessity defense in a marijuana case?

To find out, you can read the Minnesota Court of Appeals case from 1991, State v. Hanson.  Though every court case is fact specific to a great extent, the court’s main rationales in the State v. Hanson case are captured in this excerpt:

“The statutory classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance implies a determination that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States.” Minn.Stat. § 152.02, subd. 7(1) (1990). The legislature has enacted a single exception, in the THC Therapeutic Research Act (TRA), exempting from criminal sanctions possession or use of marijuana for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who are receiving the drug under the strict controls of an approved medical research program. Minn. Stat. § 152.21, subds. 1, 3, 6 (1990). These statutory provisions demonstrate that the legislature has specifically addressed and determined the possible medical uses of marijuana.”

The first point, that marijuana has been classified by Minnesota as “a Schedule I substance” meaning they claim that it has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” if it has ever been true, is certainly not true today.  Though marijuana is still arbitrarily classified by Minnesota as “Schedule I,” the majority of the United States population now lives in states with legal medical marijuana programs, and marijuana is now currently accepted as having medical use — including by the United States Surgeon General.

The second argument advanced in Hanson, was that since the Minnesota legislature had enacted THC Therapeutic Research Act (which created a “research” program so restrictive that nothing ever came of it); that therefore the legislature must have intended to preclude any other consideration of any other exception or defense for medical use of marijuana (though it never said so).  Not particularly persuasive here, the argument is of the classic rhetorical form — expressio unius est exclusio alterius, a Latin phase meaning “the expression of one thing is the exclusion of the other.”

The Hanson case was from 1991.  Much has changed since then, politically, legally, and in the medical research community, has it not?  So would a modern Minnesota appellate court right this 1991 wrong?  In 2014, it didn’t. In a 2014 decision the Minnesota Supreme Court, in State v. Thiel left intact the Schedule I classification despite a constitutional challenge by a defendant convicted of marijuana possession who had not been allowed to let the jury know the truth about his medical  condition, his medical recommendation for marijuana as medicine, or his California medical marijuana card.

It seems reasonable to conclude then, that the Minnesota courts are unlikely to remedy this injustice and restore our right to a fair jury trial, and our right to present a complete defense in Minnesota — at least not in the near term.

That is why we need the Minnesota legislature to restore some measure of Liberty and Justice in Minnesota, by passing a Bill for a new statute guaranteeing your right to let the jury hear the truth, that medical marijuana is a lesser evil (if it is an evil at all) than violating the criminal law prohibiting marijuana.

The Bill currently in the Minnesota legislature would restore the necessity defense to medical marijuana patients charged with a marijuana crime in Minnesota.  It would guarantee that the accused could use this as an affirmative defense — meaning the defendant would have the burden of showing prima facie evidence of medical necessity, and if successful, the ultimate burden of proving criminal guilt would then shift to the prosecution.  This would help restore the right to a jury trial to an extent as well.  The jurors have the right to hear the truth before condemning a person.

Contact your Minnesota House of Representatives member, your Minnesota State Senator, and the Governor to urge support of the medical necessity Bill, HF 542.

Religious use of marijuana defense prevails in Minnesota Rastafarian case.

Is religious use of marijuana a defense to a marijuana criminal charge?  A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case indicates the answer may be “yes.”  In an unpublished opinion, In the matter of the Welfare of J.J.M.A.,  A13-0295, filed September 23, 2013, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile’s delinquency adjudication based on his sincerely held religious belief as a Rastafarian, on a petty misdemeanor marijuana paraphernalia charge.

Rastaman-Vibration  The fifteen year old boy was a practicing Rastafarian – a religion that has incorporated religious use of marijuana for nearly 100 years.  The lower court found him guilty of the paraphernalia charge, despite also finding that “Rastafari is a true religion and that J.J.M.A. has a sincerely held belief in the tenets of that religion,” because he “failed to satisfy his burden of showing that the Rastafari religion requires him to carry his pipe with him at all times.”  The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that adjudication of guilt, based on the Minnesota Constitution’s freedom-of-conscience clause, article 1, section 16:

The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed . . . nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted . . . ; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.

Minnesota’s Constitution provides more protection for religious freedom than the United States Constitution does.  “’This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart’ because it ‘precludes even an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom.’”  State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1990) (Hershberger II).

The court analyzed the four prongs of the compelling state interest balancing test:

1) whether the individual holds a sincerely held belief;

2) whether the regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs;

3) whether the state’s interest is overriding or compelling; and,

4) whether the regulation uses the least restrictive means to accomplish the state’s interest.

The court ruled that the evidence at trial satisfied the defense burden to establish a firmly held belief worthy of protection under section 16.  It contrasted this case with past cases where the defendants had failed to meet the burden to establish a sincerely held religious belief, due to being unable to connect his conduct to a religious practice or principle.

The court stated,  ”once an individual has demonstrated a sincerely held religious belief intended to be protected by section 16, the burden shifts to the state ‘to demonstrate that public safety cannot be achieved by proposed alternative means,’” and that the state failed to meet this burden in this case.   Though the case did not expressly address the applicability of the defense to a marijuana possession case, it contains language that may be helpful in doing so.

Given the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol, presumably the state will never be able to meet its burden of proving that restricting religious freedom with a statute that criminalizes marijuana possession somehow improves public safety.

Thomas C Gallagher is a marijuana lawyer in Minneapolis.

Countermeasures at a DWI Stop: the Party Question

Is it a crime to drink and drive? Of course it is not.  But there are people out there – like MADD people – who appear hellbent upon changing the laws to bring back the Alcohol Prohibition, one step at a time.

It used to be “drunk driving” was a crime. Then in the 1970s the criminal laws were expanded to include “per se impaired driving laws.”   Per se roughly translates from the Latin to “the thing itself” or “by itself.”  A per se drunk driving law is a law that makes driving with an arbitrary alcohol-level a crime – even if the driver is not drunk, not impaired at all. That’s why you don’t hear the term “drunk driving” much anymore.  But why should it be a crime to drive when driving skills are not impaired?

Ok.  So the laws are unfair, and morally bankrupt – punishing the innocent and their families for no good purpose.  Fine.  There it is.  So how can you protect yourself and your family from this potential injustice?

What can a person do during a DWI stop to protect their rights?

This is mostly a question that criminal defense lawyers hear at a party.  Why?  Because almost all people stopped and later charged with DWI didn’t do any of these things.  But it can make for great conversation at a party.  There are a few different approaches and answers to the question.  So let’s narrow our hypothetical, and provide one.

Since most people stopped for a possible DWI have an alcohol concentration of less than 0.15, have no priors, and have not exhibited impaired driving conduct – let’s start with all of those assumptions, as well as assuming Minnesota laws.  Given the low speed limits these days and the most drivers travel faster than the speed limit most of the time, let’s assume a police officer stops the driver for speeding late one Friday or Saturday.   The police squad car take-down lights are visible in the rear-view mirror.  Now what?

The Police Officer Approaches the Vehicle

Police are trained to observe all of your actions and note any that could be interpreted as supportive of suspicion of impairment (and ignore the rest).  At this phase these include:

  • odor of alcohol
  • eyes – “bloodshot, watery”
  • couldn’t find or fumbled with driver’s license and insurance card
  • admitted drinking, coming from a bar, a party

What are some potentially effective countermeasures, then? If the window is not open, or open about an inch or so – that is plenty to pass the drivers license and insurance card through, but not enough to expose the odor of alcohol.  You can refuse to do lower the window to force the officer to make a forceful command to do so, making it difficult for them to argue you did so voluntarily.  When speaking to the police officer through the almost closed window, the driver can avoid eye contact.  This prevents the officer from being able to observe the cliché “bloodshot watery eyes” they imagine come only with drinking.  It’s a good idea to have the drivers license and insurance card in hand immediately after stopping, well before the police officer walks up to the vehicle to request those.  They are in your hands already, which are in plain sight on the steering wheel.  If asked “have you been drinking tonight?” you are not required to answer or answer responsively.  It is a bad idea to lie, for many reasons.  It is also a bad idea to admit facts the officer can use to build “probable cause” to ask you out of the car, or for arrest later.

If you were stopped for speeding, the police officer should just write you a speeding ticket and send you on your way – unless you give him or her probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify asking you out of your vehicle.

Police ask you to step out of the car.  Now what?

If you use the car or car door for support when getting out or walking, they will note that as suspicious.  So don’t.  They will ask you to walk behind your car, in front of theirs.  Their squad car lights will be on full bore.  They will ask you to perform field exercises they like to call “Field Sobriety Tests.”  These are not scientifically valid, though the government claims otherwise.  Sober, trained police officers “fail” these “tests.”  How will you “pass” them?  And who is your judge?  The police officer!  What to do then?  Do not perform field exercises when asked to do so.  Do not do “Field Sobriety Tests!”  Common ones include:

  • Nine step walk and turn
  • One leg stand
  • Recite the alphabet, backwards etc.
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (follow the pen or finger with eyes only, without moving head)
  • Walk a straight line

You cannot be required by law to do any of these. It would be a foolish mistake to willingly do any of them.

“Preliminary Breath Test” (PBT)

Minnesota statutes authorize police officers to require a driver to blow into a PBT machine – a portable breath-alcohol machine only under certain conditions where there is a basis to suspect DWI or selected other alcohol-related offenses.  Don’t worry about whether those preconditions exist.  Your lawyer can do that later if need be.  What is important is that a PBT machine report of 0.08 or more can provide probable cause to arrest for DWI, and so can “refusal” to perform a PBT. Refusing a PBT is not a crime.  That would only provide probable cause to arrest.  One can imagine a logical person, knowing that, deciding to refuse the PBT if they felt sure they would end up with a PBT report of well over .08, for example .20 or more.  That person might feel they would have nothing to lose by refusing – since they would be arrested either way.  Compare that to a person who believed they would get a PBT report of less than 0.08.  That person would be foolish to refuse it, since it could result in their not being arrested.

Keep in mind that the little PBT machine on the side of the road, is not the same as the big, evidentiary breath-alcohol machine at the police station.  If a person is arrested, they can be asked to submit a sample for alcohol testing again, even though they already submitted to a PBT.  The PBT report is not admissible in a criminal DWI trial because they are too unreliable and inaccurate.

If arrested, then what?

Every step further in the chain of events described above brings the driver closer to arrest (unless the PBT is less than 0.08).   If the PBT reads too high, that and the rest will be followed typically with handcuffs and the back of the squad car.  Then normally the arresting officer will wait for back up or a tow truck, and leave for the police station once either arrives.  Talking is not a good idea at any point, including while in the squad car.

At or near the police station (or hospital for a blood draw), the police normally read “the Minnesota Implied Consent Advisory” which informs the driver of certain legal rights.  The most important is your right to consult a lawyer before deciding whether to submit to chemical testing.

It is always, always, always – a good idea to call a lawyer first!  The police are required by law to help you do so.  If they fail to help you call a lawyer, the chemical test could be suppressed from evidence.  You should always make every effort to call a lawyer in this situation – even if you are still sitting in the squad car in handcuffs!  Tell the officer you want to call a lawyer.   This part is usually recorded – a good thing.

The other important right is secret in the sense that it is never mentioned in the “Implied Consent Advisory” by the cop.  what is it?  It is your Constitutional right to exculpatory evidence, as manifested in your statutory right to an “Additional Test.”  Say what?  You have the legal right in Minnesota to a Second Test, after the you provide the sample requested by police. In this situation, the arrested person should always, always, always request an Additional Test.  If you do, the police are only required to give you a phone to use.  You can use the phone to call whoever you need to call to arrange for an additional test.  See the midnight DWI jail call to a Minnesota lawyer blog post for more on this issue.

Stay safe out there.

By: Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis DWI Defense Lawyer

The Moral Peril of Minnesota Asset Forfeiture Laws

The Minnesota Senate is now considering a Bill to reform abusive asset forfeiture laws, SF2613.

Let’s review Minneosta’s current law on asset forfeiture (government takes your money): 

  1. The government (police) can take your property at any time if suspicious to them, even if you are innocent.
  2. The burden is on you, not them, to do something about getting a court to look at it.
  3. If you do nothing, they keep your property, your money; and you lose; without any court or judge ever even seeing the case.
  4. If you want to do something about it, you need cash for a lawyer and court filing fees.  The law provides the government a free lawyer and requires them to pay no court filing fees.
  5. The police agency that targeted you and took you down gets to keep 70% commission on the cash, valuables, your vehicle they seize from you.  Could this affect their honesty about their investigation; or, the appearance of propriety?

Property rights for common people are relatively recent individual human rights, against the government or the king.  In 1066, William the Conqueror seized nearly all the land in England.  He exercised complete power over the land, but granted fiefs to landholder stewards, who paid fees and provided military services as a condition for use of the King’s land and people. 

William the Conqueror

Centuries later, the Magna Carta asserted that cash payments were required for expropriations of land.  Over time, tenants held more ownership rights rather than only possessory rights over their land. 

The Third Amendment to the United States Constitution says: 

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” 

The intention of this amendment was to prevent soldiers being quartered in private property as the British armed forces had done in Colonial America by under the Quartering Act before the American Revolutionary War. 

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says: 

“No person shall be … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” 

The idea was to destroy what was left of feudalism, where the king or the government owns property, and the common people owned nothing, or owned nothing except at the discretion, whim or caprice of the government.  The third, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution all are attempts to further this goal.  But history has repeatedly shown us that this struggle for individual property rights against theft or seizure or taking by the ruling government has been ongoing.  Ground has been gained and lost, and gained again over the years, both in politics and in law. 

Hypothetical?

Imagine that you are peacefully driving down the road, having an average day.  Then, you are stopped by people in a vehicle armed with weapons.  They hold you against your will.  They question you in a threatening manner.  The ask for your “consent” to search you and your vehicle, though they make it  appear that it will happen regardless.  They take your personal valuables.  They seize your vehicle.  There is no court process.  It’s just gone.  They have it now.  You no longer do. 

What would you call this?  Armed robbery? 

What if the “people in a vehicle armed with weapons” who stopped you were police officers of the State of Minnesota, acting under the color of the laws of Minnesota?  Now what do you call it? 

“Administrative Asset Forfeiture.”  What does that mean?  

Asset forfeiture laws are a type of government “taking” of private property that has been around a long time, but they have degenerated in recent years from “Judicial Asset Forfeiture” after conviction into “Administrative Asset Forfeiture” on a police officer’s view of suspicion.  What’s the difference?  First, a little background and context. 

If you steal from a thief, is that stealing?

Ask Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham.  

There are two basic moral justifications offered for laws permitting the government to seize and keep private property suspected to have some connection to crime – instrumentality and criminal proceeds

Instrumentality.  If a burglar uses special tools to commit a burglary, then the government seizes and keeps those as instrumentality of the crime, this may somewhat disable the burglar from committing a similar crime.  Almost all asset forfeiture seizures in Minnesota are of this type.  The instrumentality rationale for property forfeiture, however, has been stretched wafer thin.  It is now most commonly used in cases of suspected petty crimes like DWI, prostitution and banned drugs possession; not commonly in serious or violent crimes. 

Criminal proceeds.  This type is relatively rare, and involves and attempt to trace (equitable tracing) the source of the funds used to purchase an asset to crime.  These usually involve larger dollar amounts only, well over $100,000 per case.  The type of crime alleged is less important. 

Is the Property Guilty?  Is the Owner?

Nothing Personal: In Rem Jurisdiction.  Asset forfeiture cases, the few that ever make it into court, are usually captioned with the claimant as a party to the lawsuit against the property.  Rem is Latin meaning “thing.” When courts exercise in rem jurisdiction, they assert authority over a thing, not a person.  Like much in the law, there are historical reasons for this. 

If the justification for the “taking” of another’s property is that the owner is a criminal, or that the property is somehow related to crime; should we be certain that the owner really did commit a crime in connection with the property? 

Should police be able to seize and keep your vehicle or other property even though you’ve not been convicted of a crime?  Before you get a hearing before a fair and neutral magistrate? 

In Minnesota today, police can seize your vehicle or other property under circumstances they view as suspicious, keep it, sell it and keep the cash, unless you file a court challenge “EXACTLY AS PRESCRIBED IN MINNESOTA STATUTES SECTION …” within 60 days.  You’ll need money for lawyer and court filing fees – just to get a day in court.  The money they get from your property after they sell it?  “70 percent of the money or proceeds must be forwarded to the appropriate agency…” i.e., the Police Agency that originally took your Private Property.  This is Minnesota’s current “administrative” asset forfeiture scheme. 

What about “Judicial Asset Forfeiture?”

Judicial asset forfeiture is slightly more fair in that it affords procedural due process – the right to notice and a hearing before a neutral magistrate before the government can permanently keep your property.  A serious problem with this type is that a criminal conviction is not currently required before the government can prevail in a judicial asset forfeiture case. 

Who are the victims of government asset forfeiture?

The salt of the earth – the common people of modest means have disproportionately been the victims of government abuses, negligence and shoddy practices in the area of criminal law generally.  When it comes to asset forfeiture laws, it is no different.  When police officers on an asset-forfeiture treasure hunt take cash, gold, vehicles, other valuables from a person who is never charged, never convicted of any crime; what is the cost-benefit ratio for that person to fight for return of the property in court?  Could they even afford (hire a lawyer, pay a court filing fee) to if they wanted to?  Can they do all that in time to meet the 60 day deadline?  Would that cost too much relative to what was stolen from them by police to be worth it?  Do they have enough faith in the legal process to believe it would be fair, anyway?  What will the medium term ramifications of this be, politically? 

The innocent are victims of asset forfeiture laws:  Sometimes the innocent owner is not accused of having any criminal association, but merely an association with another who is suspected, such as a spouse, parent or employer.  This is an anti-marriage law, that encourages divorce of a troubled spouse.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recently published a case that makes this clear, and a majority of the Justices asked the Minnesota legislature to reform the statutes, in the Laase case.  So will the legislature and the government heed this call, from the Court and form the People? 

Is the Minnesota government corrupt, victimizing the weak?  Are its laws a corrupting influence on our good police officers? 

Has the time has come to reform (or repeal entirely) asset forfeiture laws in Minnesota?  Call the legislature.  Support the Reform Bill. 

Author: Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.  Link to his Minnesota Drug Forfeiture Law page.

Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse under DWI Car Forfeiture Statute

Today the Minnesota Supreme Court released a decision interpreting a Minnesota Statute in a way to deprive an innocent spouse of their legal right to keep their car, jointly owned by a spouse who drove it in violation of a law.   The Case, David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, A07-2023, December 17, 2009, was another 4-3 split and splintered decision – with the majority reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, to rule against the civil property rights of the individual (Justices Lorie S. Gildea, Eric J. Magnuson, G. Barry Anderson and Christopher J. Dietzen in the majority, with Dissents from Justices Paul H. Anderson, Alan C. Page and Helen M. Meyer.) 

Divorce to Protect Your Property?

The court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), does not apply in a case of joint ownership of a vehicle if one of the joint owners is also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle.   

The majority’s new rule is that all joint owners of a motor vehicle must be innocent in order for any owner to employ the innocent owner defense in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).  

As Justice Paul Anderson points out in his dissent, 

“The context of the case before us involves a DWI forfeiture statute that contemplates both the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit motor vehicles used in the commission of designated offenses and protection for innocent motor vehicle owners. Thus, the context within which we must conduct our analysis is a disfavored forfeiture statute that we must strictly construe which means that if we have any doubt about the application of the statute, that doubt is to be resolved in favor of joint owner … .” 

The case involves Minnesota’s DWI forfeiture statute which creates both a presumption that a person arrested for suspected DWI will forfeit their car to the State; and also contains an affirmative defense for innocent owners of cars driven by someone else arrested for suspected DWI.  What about the case where a car is jointly owned by two or more people, such as the family car that the non-offending spouse needs to get to work? 

Justice Page concludes his dissent with: 

“I would construe the word ‘owner’ to refer to each individual owner throughout section 169A.63. Thus, under subdivision 7(d), a vehicle is not subject to forfeiture if any of its owners can demonstrate that he or she, individually, did not know the vehicle would be used contrary to law. Similarly, under subdivision 7(d), it is up to each of the owners to demonstrate that he or she ‘took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.’ An owner that can make the required showing cannot be divested of his or her interest in the vehicle, which subdivision 1(h) instructs extends to the whole of the vehicle. Because Mr. Laase made the required showing, I would hold that his interest in the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture.” 

Is this another bad 4-3 splintered decision, with the slim majority again ruling against the rights of the individual?  So it would seem.  At least in this unjust situation, the Minnesota legislature could fix it next legislative session by amending the statute the court was interpreting.

Will the legislature repair this injustice in the law?  Public anger has been building for years over the use of asset forfeiture laws to legally steal private property, with the excuse of some crime having been committed, or the possibility of one.  The most frequent use of these laws has been in the areas of Minnesota asset forfeitures in drug cases, and in DWI cases.  Most of the injustices in these laws are common to all types of asset forfeiture statutes (whether based upon drugs, DWI or prostitution).  The innocent owner issue is only one of many. 

One of these issues is the conflict of interest created by allowing the law enforcement agency which legally steals the property from the citizen, to keep much of the money proceeds from that seizure and forfeiture.  Two of the Justices concurring with the majority in David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe highlighted the issue, in Justice Barry Anderson’s concurrence: 

“[T]here is reason to question the balance struck by the legislature between various competing interests.  For example, given the general disfavor of forfeiture statutes, the wisdom of vesting the right to possession of a forfeited vehicle in the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest of a defendant and the forfeiture of a defendant‘s vehicle is not immediately evident. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.63, subds. 1(b), 2, and 3 (2008).  But such issues are for the legislature to address, not this court.” 

Justice Gildea wrote the 4-3 majority opinion.  However, only one other justice joined her opinion, Magnuson.  The two concurring Justices wrote, in essence, that the law  was unfair and should be changed – but by the legislature not the court (see quote above).  The three dissenting Justices also noted the serious unfairness of the statute as interpreted by the majority opinion.  Therefore five of the seven essentially agreed on one thing – the statute allowing the government to take the private property of an innocent spouse or other co-owner is unfair and should be changed. 

This issue was referenced in a recent article in the Star Tribune newspaper, Crime fighters gone rogue, where a  leader of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force explained in relation to financial stress due to underfunding form the legislature, he: 

“… turned in 2003 to the only major source of cash he could find: money seized from suspected drug dealers, gang members and other targets. Over the next two years, Ryan told state examiners, his unit survived on virtually nothing else. 

‘We had no money and we were begging, borrowing and I hesitate to say stealing, that would be the wrong place, but … that’s the way we were operating,’ Ryan said, according to a transcript of his formal interview with the Legislative Auditor’s Office.” 

Is it fair to law enforcement officers to create laws like this with inherent conflicts of interest – inciting them to take from the poor, and give to their own agency of the government?  Can a normal human be completely immune to such powerful temptations?  Why should Minnesota laws encourage such mischief upon the individual people of Minnesota? 

Let’s see if the Minnesota legislature will reform forfeiture laws in Minnesota this year. 

By Thomas C. Gallagher, a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.