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Exoneration claimants cut from statute

Barbara L. Jones//September 28, 2017

Exoneration claimants cut from statute

Barbara L. Jones//September 28, 2017

A claimant under the state’s exoneration and compensation law succeeded in her attempt to have part of the law declared unconstitutional. But the court then severed the statute in a way that denied her any relief.

It wasn’t the outcome the claimant and her lawyers had hoped for, although they are pleased that the court struck down the unconstitutional law.

The offending statute said that a person is eligible to seek compensation as an exoneree if the conviction has been reversed or vacated by a court and the prosecutor dismisses the charges. But there are no charges to dismiss if a conviction has been reversed, and nothing to reverse if the charges are dismissed. That made the law irrational, the court said in Back v. State of Minnesota, a 4-3 decision.

Daniel Bellig
Daniel Bellig

But Back’s attorneys, Daniel Bellig and Joseph Gangi of Mankato, said the court went too far in its remedy. The court decided to remove from the definition of exonerated those cases where a court has vacated or reversed a conviction on grounds consistent with innocence and the prosecutor dismissed the charges. Those innocent persons are now denied relief, they said.

The Legislature must be the place where the law is fixed, the court said. Justice David Stras wrote the opinion for the majority and Justice David Lillehaug concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Justices Natalie Hudson and Margaret Chutich.

Prosecutor must dismiss charges

Joseph Gangi
Joseph Gangi

Danna Back was involved in an altercation between two men that ended when one of them shot and killed the other one. Although she did not possess or fire the weapon, she was charged with homicide. A jury found her guilty of second-degree manslaughter for causing the death of another by culpable negligence. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction, concluding as a matter of law that Back was not culpably negligent because she did not have a duty to control the shooter or protect the victim.

Back sought compensation under Minn. Stat. sec. 590.11 as an exonerated individual. That statute in pertinent part defines exonerated to mean that a court has vacated or reversed a conviction and the prosecutor dismissed the charges. Back argued that the requirement that the prosecutor dismiss the charges was a meaningless one. The District Court disagreed and denied her.

The Court of Appeals said that the prosecutorial dismissal requirement violated equal protection because requiring the prosecutor to act has no impact on the proceedings once an appellate court reverses a criminal conviction. The Court of Appeals excised only the prosecutorial dismissal requirement from the rests of the statute.

The state petitioned for review to address the meaning of the term exonerated, whether the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement violates equal protection and if necessary, the remedy for the equal protection violation.

Irrational statute

The case arose out of the first step of the exoneration-compensation statute, which requires a District Court judge to decide whether a claimant is eligible to submit a petition to a compensation panel. The statute also requires that the prosecutor dismiss the charges. Since the Hennepin County Attorney did not do so, the District Court denied the petition.

That was correct, the Supreme Court said, based on the plain language of Minn. Stat. sec. 590.11, subd. 1, which requires a reversal or vacation of the conviction and that the prosecutor dismiss the charges. Without that prosecutorial action the statutory definition was not satisfied.

However, the court then determined that the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement violates equal protection. The respondent argued that the definition of exonerated is irrational because if a court vacates or reverses a conviction there is nothing for the prosecutor to dismiss and, if a prosecutor dismisses the charges, there is nothing for the court to vacate or reverse.

The court applied a rational-basis standard of review since the parties had agreed that a heightened standard was not required because there was no fundamental right or suspect class involved. The standard requires that a statutory classification be rationally related to a legitimate state interest, providing wide latitude to the states.

Stras wrote that the definition of exonerated divides claimants into three classes—those whose convictions were vacated or reversed, those whose charges were dismissed by the prosecutor and those who have their charges dismissed and their convictions reversed or vacated. Only the third group is eligible for compensation, which the court said lacked a rational basis.

The court rejected the state’s argument that the statute authorizes a special type of dismissal to consent to a claimant’s eligibility for compensation. “The exoneration-compensation statute, despite setting forth detailed procedural requirements for the consideration of compensation petitions, does not establish any procedure by which a prosecutor may dismiss charges that no longer exist, solely to fulfill the requirements in Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i),” wrote Stras.

A deep cut

The court then turned to the remedy for a constitutional violation. The question was how much of the unconstitutional law to excise, with options ranging from partial severance of the unconstitutional section to total invalidation of the statute.

The court rejected the option to sever only the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement, as proposed by the claimant and the dissent, because the Legislature may not have enacted the statute without that particular language. It observed that the plain language and structure of the statute creates a significant role for the prosecutor throughout the process.

It also said that the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement and the court-action requirement are essentially and inseparably connected with and dependent upon one another. The conjunctive “and” connects the two requirements, indicating that both are necessary. Additionally, the two requirements depend on each other because they operate together for the same purpose. “Indeed, the other definition of ‘exonerated,’ which applies when a court orders ‘a new trial on grounds consistent with innocence,’ also requires prosecutorial dismissal of charges in the absence of an acquittal,” Stras observed.

It was clear to the majority that the Legislature intended to allow the prosecutor to have a say in who qualifies as exonerated. “It is true that the Legislature picked an inoperative means to express its preference for prosecutorial involvement, but such an error does not mean, as the dissent would conclude, that we should simply discard the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement and apply whatever remains,” said Stras. To do that would be to rewrite the statute, the court said.

The court’s remedy went too far, said Bellig and Gangi. “They took the harshest approach they could to people who are innocent. I think they did it so the Legislature would come in and fix it,” Bellig said.

“The majority makes a bigger mess by striking out a whole class of persons,” said Gangi. The whole statutory framework is now unconstitutional, the lawyers agreed. The role of the prosecutor is sufficiently protected throughout the petition process, they said.

They hope the Legislature, when it amends the law, provides that Back and others similarly situated will be given a way to get back into court.  Otherwise she is time-barred from any relief.

Dissent: A cleaver, not a scalpel

The court’s severance has the hallmarks of a cleaver, not a scalpel, Lillehaug wrote. It excludes the innocent persons the Legislature intended to compensate and defies the Legislature’s statutory instruction to use a light touch when severing unconstitutional provisions, thus damaging the separation of powers, Lillehaug continued.

“The opinion creates two categories of exonerated persons, one eligible for compensation and one not eligible for compensation. Innocent persons exonerated by dismissal of the charges or the verdict at a new trial are still welcome to participate in the compensation process. But innocent persons whose judgments of conviction have been reversed by the courts are shut out. This distinction is utterly irrational,” he continued.

The correct remedy would be to sever only the words “and the prosecutor dismissed the charges,” thereby maintaining eligibility for compensation for innocent persons whose convictions have been vacated or reversed, Lillehaug concluded.


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