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Supreme Court Digest: July 13, 2022

Minnesota Lawyer//July 14, 2022

The Supreme Court Chamber in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Supreme Court Digest: July 13, 2022

Minnesota Lawyer//July 14, 2022

Civil

 

Attorney Discipline

Suspension

The Director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility filed a petition for disciplinary action against respondent Jason Alexander Nielson, alleging various acts of professional misconduct, and a referee was appointed. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the referee found that in two client matters, Nielson failed to properly explain the legal issues so that the client could make informed decisions, and that in one matter, he failed to inform the client about the status of her case. The referee further found that in one of these matters, Nielson provided false and misleading information to the client, and in the other matter—working through a paralegal—he also provided false and misleading information to the client. The referee found three aggravating factors and no mitigating factors. Based on these findings and conclusions of professional misconduct, the referee recommended that Nielson be publicly reprimanded, precluded from taking new clients for 45 days, and placed on probation for 1 year. Nielson challenged the referee’s findings and conclusions, argued that the proceedings violated his due process rights, and contended that the recommended discipline was too severe. The Director, in turn, contended that the recommended discipline was too light and asks us to suspend Nielson.

The Supreme Court held that (1) the referee’s findings and conclusions that respondent committed misconduct in two client matters by failing to properly explain the legal issues so that the client could make informed decisions, failing to provide the client with information about the case status, and providing false and misleading information to the client were not clearly erroneous; (2) respondent failed to establish that his due process rights were violated; and (3) a 30 day suspension, followed by 1 year of probation, was the appropriate discipline for respondent’s misconduct. Suspended.

A21-0339 In re Nielson (Original Jurisdiction)

 

Criminal

 

Evidence

Sexual-Assault-Counselor Privilege

This case concerned how sexual assault counselors’ statutory privilege under Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(k), interacts with a criminal defendant’s interests in a fair trial. Although appellant, a nonprofit organization supporting survivors of sexual assault, invoked the sexual assault counselor privilege to prevent respondent-defendant’s motion in his criminal prosecution seeking disclosure of any records concerning the alleged victim’s counseling, the District Court never addressed the privilege. Nevertheless, the court concluded that compliance with the subpoena to produce records protected by that privilege for in camera review was reasonable, and it denied appellant’s motion to quash the subpoena. The court of appeals agreed and denied appellant’s petition for a writ of prohibition. Appellant sought relief.

The Supreme Court held that (1) statutory privileges do not always give way, in a criminal proceeding, to the defendant’s interest in the privileged material; and (2) the sexual assault counselor privilege in Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(k), does not permit disclosure of privileged records in a criminal proceeding, even for in camera review, without the consent of the victim. Reversed; writ of prohibition issued.

A21-0880 State v. Conrad (In re Hope Coalition) (Court of Appeals)

 

 

Murder

Sufficiency of the Evidence

Following a jury trial, 21-year-old defendant was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. The District Court imposed a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of release. On appeal, defendant made two arguments. First, he argued that the State presented insufficient evidence to support his conviction. Second, he argued that a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of release imposed on a 21-year-old defendant is unconstitutionally cruel under Article I, Section 5, of the Minnesota Constitution.

The Supreme Court held that (1) the State presented sufficient circumstantial evidence to sustain defendant’s conviction for first-degree premeditated murder; and (2) a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of release is not unconstitutionally cruel when imposed on a 21-year-old defendant who has been convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. Affirmed.

A21-0453 State v. Hassan (Hennepin County)

 

Plea Withdrawal

Manifest Injustice

At issue in this case was whether a manifest injustice requiring plea withdrawal occurs when a guilty plea colloquy omits questions about uncontested previous convictions that were alleged in the complaint. The State charged defendant with violating a domestic abuse no contact order. The complaint alleged that defendant had at least two previous convictions for violating a domestic abuse no contact order, which enhanced the charge to a felony. Defendant pleaded guilty to the charged offense. No party questioned defendant about his previous convictions during his plea colloquy. On appeal, defendant argued that his failure to personally admit the previous convictions during his plea colloquy made his plea inaccurate, and therefore a manifest injustice occurred that required a plea withdrawal. The court of appeals agreed.

The Supreme Court held that (1) a manifest injustice does not occur, and withdrawal of a guilty plea is not required, when a plea colloquy omits questions about uncontested previous convictions that were alleged in the complaint; and (2) plea withdrawal was not required because the defendant did not establish a manifest injustice. Reversed and remanded.

A20-1151 State v. Epps (Court of Appeals)

 

Sentencing

Aiding an Offender

Defendant appealed her sentence for aiding an offender as an accomplice after the fact in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.495, subd. 3, for her role in concealing evidence of a murder that her husband committed. The statutory maximum sentence for a conviction of being an accomplice after the fact is “not more than one-half of the statutory maximum sentence of imprisonment . . . that could be imposed on the principal offender.” After defendant pleaded guilty to being an accomplice after the fact and before sentencing, she argued that the statutory maximum is not a determinate sentence when the principal crime is subject to life imprisonment because “one-half of life imprisonment” is not calculable in terms of days or months. Defendant argued that because the statutory maximum was indeterminate, the District Court did not have authority to impose any sentence for her offense. The District Court rejected defendant’s argument and sentenced her to 48 months of imprisonment. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed defendant’s sentence.

The Supreme Court held that the District Court did not err in sentencing defendant to 48 months in prison for violating Minn. Stat. § 609.495, subd. 3, aiding an offender as an accomplice after the fact, because that crime’s statutory maximum sentence is more than 20 years when, as here, the principal crime was first-degree murder. Affirmed.

A21-0221 State v. Miller (Court of Appeals)

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