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The Minnesota Court of Appeals on June 18 reversed the Ramsey County District Court conviction of Theng Yang for unlawful firearms possession because no reasonable suspicion supported a police detention of him while in his front yard.

Detention of man in own yard unreasonable

One’s front yard is not a public place.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on June 18 reversed the Ramsey County District Court conviction of Theng Yang for unlawful firearms possession because no reasonable suspicion supported a police detention of him while in his front yard.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office is “in the process of reviewing the decision and considering our appellate and legislative options,” said County Attorney John Choi.

A front yard in Frogtown

A 911 operator on an afternoon in November 2010 received a report that an Asian male at a specific address in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood had a gun. The only identification was that the man was wearing red pants. Police recognized the address from previous arrests and drug-related incidents.

Upon arrival, police saw four or five Asian males enter the front yard from the porch, which was Yang’s home. Police “took cover behind their squad cars, drew their handguns, and ordered the men to the ground.”

Yang was handcuffed. When police asked Yang where his gun was located, he truthfully told the officer that it was in his coat pocket. The record is silent about when police discovered that Yang was in his own front yard.

Yang had previously been convicted of a felony and could not legally possess a firearm. The state charged him with unlawful firearms possession.

Yang moved the District Court to suppress evidence of the gun because he said police lacked a reasonable, articulable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity. The District Court denied the motion.

After a stipulated-facts trial, the District Court found Yang guilty and convicted him of unlawful firearms possession with a sentence of 60 months in prison. The District Court denied Yang’s motion for a downward sentencing departure.

“In a public place”

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A warrantless seizure must fit within recognized exceptions. One exception is investigatory seizures based on “objectively reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

Whether reasonable suspicion existed to detain Yang depended on interpretation of Minn.Stat. sec. 624.714, subd. 1a, which requires a permit to carry a pistol in a public place, as defined in section 624.7181.

The court went on to consider the definition of “public place,” and whether it included Yang’s front yard. If it was a public place, the state argued that “officers justifiably detained Yang on their suspicion that Yang was violating Minnesota’s statute generally prohibiting a person from carrying a handgun in a public place.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed with both parties’ arguments about “what is not a public place.”

Instead, it looked to the definition of “public place” in the statute, which explicitly includes both “property owned, leased, or controlled by a governmental unit” and private property dedicated for public use. Dedications of property are typically for streets, utility infrastructure, recreational facilities, open spaces, and other “publicly useable space.”

Yang’s front yard was none of the above.

The Court of Appeals distinguished three Minnesota cases that “seem to suggest a different conclusion.” One case defined “public place” before the Personal Protection Act of 2003 added the current statutory definition.

Another case contained a broader definition of “public place” when the crime is carrying a pistol in a public place while under the influence of alcohol.

Finally, a third case allows police to briefly detain and frisk a person carrying a gun in a public place to determine whether the person has a valid carry permit. In that case, police had reasonable suspicion from a report that the suspect was carrying a handgun in a public place. Yang was not in a public place.

The Court of Appeals then decided that police lacked reasonable suspicion to seize Yang. Police did not know that Yang had a previous conviction that prohibited handgun possession. Previous drugs found and arrests made at the home did not “create reasonable suspicion to detain an occupant on a new report that he possesses a handgun.”

Implications

“I think the Court of Appeals decision accurately captures the language of the statute at issue,” said Tara Reese Duginske of Minneapolis who represented Yang in a pro bono arrangement with the State Public Defender’s Office. “We are very pleased with the result.”

The case was unique in that “the facts were really clean,” leaving a strictly legal issue of evaluating reasonable suspicion, Duginske said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said, “While we always respect the decision of the Court of Appeals, I am sincerely concerned about the implications to law enforcement’s ability to protect the public from convicted felons who carry guns. By law, convicted felons are prohibited from possessing firearms anywhere. This is an important prohibition that needs to be enforced within the confines of constitutional rights.”

Contact Jay Donald Jerde at jaydjerde@yahoo.com.

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