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In the Hopper: Marijuana, cops, unborn children, etc.

Kevin Featherly//February 25, 2021

In the Hopper: Marijuana, cops, unborn children, etc.

Kevin Featherly//February 25, 2021

This time out, we’re covering bills dealing with marijuana, a minimum penalty for first-degree murder of an unborn child and the Senate version of a bill we covered last week, which aims to make sure parents are represented by lawyers in child-protection cases.

And away we go.

House File 600 (chief author, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley). When Winkler’s bill to legalize cannabis for adult use was heard in House Commerce on Feb. 17 it marked two historic firsts.

It was the first time a recreational pot legalization bill was ever heard by a House committee (the Senate stole the overall honors in 2019). And it was the first time any legislative committee ever approved and forwarded a recreational marijuana bill (the Senate version died a quick death without that ever happening).

HF600 is a monster at 173 pages, plus appendix. In addition to legalizing pot for use by any Minnesotan over age 21, it creates a seven-member Cannabis Management Board, which would have rule-making authority over pot-related public health, welfare and public safety. It would also oversee the elimination of the illicit market.

The bill has provisions dealing with business licensing, inspection and regulations, testing, product labeling and taxation. It creates entrepreneurial grants and loans for communities of color and does a whole lot else besides, dude.

“We have a product that’s available widely, but regulated poorly and for which we use the criminal justice system to penalize people,” Winkler told Commerce committee members. “That system doesn’t work and creates significant harms.”

The bill attracted dozens of letters of support from NORML, the AFSCME Council 5 labor union and Sensible Change Minnesota, as well as a bevy of individuals hoping to access the drug for its medicinal and recreational properties.

Opponents included the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Trucking Association and the long-time Alexandria, Va.-based opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. A representative of the Minnesota Catholic Conference testified in committee against the bill.

Were it to pass, Minnesota would join 15 U.S. states that so far have legalized recreational marijuana.

The chances for that, at least in the immediate term, are scant. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has expressed opposition. So has Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the pivotal Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee.

While his committee hasn’t yet decided if it will entertain the bill’s companion (Senate File 757, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina), in a recent interview, Limmer gave a strong indication of what would happen if it did.

“I would tend to think that it would have the same result as two years ago, if we did have a hearing,” he said. “The collateral damage of a marijuana policy in any state has proven that it’s way too costly.”

As to Winkler’s drive to get a bill passed, Limmer said he thinks electoral politics lie at the root of that effort.

“Being the DFL majority leader,” Limmer said, “Ryan Winkler has a very strong need to ally himself with the marijuana movement, in order to prevent marijuana-party candidates from diluting the vote against Republicans.”

The Winkler bill cleared House Commerce by a 10-7 party line vote and was forwarded to the Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs committee. That committee also passed the bill, by a 7-5 vote, on Feb. 23.


Senate File 635 (Sen. Justin D. Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids). Senate Judiciary on Feb. 17 unanimously passed this bill. It clarifies that the first-degree felony murder of an unborn child carries a 30-year minimum sentence.

The bill fills a gap inadvertently left in statute, according to Eichorn. Though the murder of an unborn infant during the commission of a violent felony has long been considered a heinous crime, statute inadvertently omits any minimum sentence.

Filling that void was a recommendation of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, in its 2020 annual legislative report. The commission offered no guidance on where to set a minimal penalty, but Eichorn says his bill parallels the punishment handed out in the more usual types of first-degree murder.

The bill was passed unanimously and sent to the Senate floor, where it has had a second reading. It has no House companion.


House File 992 (Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis). According to its chief author, this bill aims to improve the way Minnesota’s criminal justice system uses jailhouse informants.

“We know there can be strong motivations for incarcerated persons to trade information for leniency,” Long told the House Judiciary committee on Feb 23. ”Sometimes this information is accurate, but there is reason to believe that it may not always be credible.”

The bill essentially does two things, he said. It improves disclosure of past informant behavior to defense counsel, to help courts better determine informants’ credibility, Long said.

It also creates a database to track informant behavior, so trends can be analyzed and prosecutors have better information to go on, before putting a jailhouse stoolie on the stand, Long said. Anonymized data would be published annually to help with research.

Long said his bill has support from across ideological spectrum, from the libertarian group Americans for Prosperity and to the left-leaning ACLU. Sara Jones, executive director of the Great North Innocence Project, testified on its behalf Tuesday.

The measure was not voted on, but instead was laid over for possible inclusion in a Judiciary policy and finance omnibus bill. It has no Senate companion.


Senate File 941 (Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton). This is the Senate version of House File 312 (Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville). It would require that courts appoint counsel, when requested, to adults in child-protection cases.

The bill would appropriate $1.04 million over two years to the Department of Human Services, to plan for what would be a major transition and help connect attorneys to clients. If the bill passes, it would go into effect in 2022, Mathews told his own Senate Civil Law committee on Feb. 18.

“We’re trying to help guard against unnecessary removals and try to make sure that there is legal representation provided to parents, from the very first moment,” Mathews said.

His bill was passed by unanimous voice vote and forwarded to the Senate Human Services Reform committee, which Mathews said will work out its financial details. It has not yet been heard there.

The House version was referred to that body’s Human Services committee, but it has not yet been heard there, either.


House File 717 (Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center): This bill, which is opposed by the state’s three primary law enforcement groups, extends the civil statute of limitations both for alleged sex abuse cases involving cops and wrongful death claims involving peace officers.

Under current law, most police-involved civil claims alleging sexual assault or wrongful death must be brought within six years of the incident. Vang’s bill would eliminate those statutes of limitations, while also creating a five-year retroactive window for past cases.

“This is a bill about healing,” Vang said. “It is an important tool for families to bring claims and hold police officers accountable.”

Bill Hutton, the former Washington County sheriff, testified on Feb. 23 before the House Judiciary to oppose the bill. “The statute of limitations is designed to promote justice by encouraging plaintiffs to diligently pursue their claims,” he said. “Timeliness is important. Evidence can be lost, memories fade and witnesses disappear.”

The legislation is one of many leftovers from last year’s House police reform package. it was among the provisions yanked from the final police-reform legislation passed during a summer 2020 special session.

During testimony last year, bill advocates said the change is necessary because law enforcement agencies sometimes keep information needed for discovery under seal, slow-walking internal investigations and running out the clock on civil cases.

The bill was laid over for inclusion in a possible omnibus bill without a committee vote. It has no Senate companion.

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