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Court of Appeals Digest: Sept. 12, 2022

Minnesota Lawyer//September 15, 2022//

Court of Appeals Digest: Sept. 12, 2022

Minnesota Lawyer//September 15, 2022//

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Civil Nonprecedential


Civil Commitment

SDP; Harmful Sexual Conduct

Pro se appellant raised the following three challenges to the District Court’s decision to commit him as a sexually dangerous person: (1) the District Court made unsupported factual findings that appellant engaged in a course of harmful sexual conduct; (2) the District Court erred when it determined that appellant was highly likely to reoffend; and (3) appellant’s counsel provided ineffective assistance. Holding that, to satisfy the statutory meaning of “harmful sexual conduct,” the county need not prove that the victims suffered actual harm, only that the sexual conduct in question caused a substantial likelihood of serious physical or emotional harm, the Court of Appeals concluded it was not clearly erroneous for the District Court to conclude that appellant’s conduct created a substantial likelihood of serious physical or emotional harm for both victims. Affirmed.

A21-1623 In re Civil Commitment of Munn (Hennepin County)




Duty of Loyalty

In this appeal from judgment in favor of respondent-employer following a bench trial in this duty-of-loyalty dispute between employer and former employee-appellant, appellant asserted the following three errors: (1) the District Court improperly relied on deposition testimony as substantive evidence; (2) the District Court erroneously denied appellant’s continuance request; and (3) the District Court erroneously determined that appellant breached the duty of loyalty he owed to respondent. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted the deposition transcript as substantive evidence or when it denied the request to postpone the trial. The Court also concluded that appellant breached his duty of loyalty to respondent when he submitted a competing bid for the same work as respondent while he was still employed by respondent. Affirmed.

A22-0089 M.A.A.C., Inc. v. Winters (Chippewa County)



Real Property

Well Disclosures

Appellant bought a house that, according to her, was serviced by a well that did not sufficiently supply water. Appellant sued the sellers for failing to disclose the alleged insufficient well production, failing to disclose the area’s general water deficiency, and failing to disclose the well’s failure to operate up to its design standards. The District Court granted summary judgment to the sellers. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part because appellant failed to provide legal support for her premise that a property seller must disclose area water conditions and because she cited no evidence to support her claim that the well failed to perform up to specifications. But the Court reversed in part because the District Court misconstrued appellant’s civil complaint as having failed to allege a statutory nondisclosure claim and because appellant submitted evidence that could support a jury’s finding that the well did not adequately supply water and that the sellers knew about but failed to disclose the deficiency. Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

A22-0323 Wambach v. Robley (Clay County)



Criminal Precedential


Right to Confrontation


The issue presented reflects a clash between the District Court’s reasonable concern for the health and well-being of all those in the courtroom and the constitutional right of a defendant to confront his accusers. Defendant challenged his convictions for second-degree felony murder, asserting that the District Court violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him by ruling that a witness was unavailable to testify in person after being possibly exposed to COVID-19.

The Court of Appeals held that a witness’s possible exposure to a contagious virus by itself does not render her unavailable for purposes of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause if the witness is able to be present. Reversed and remanded.

A21-1101 State v. Trifiletti (Ramsey County)



Criminal Nonprecedential


DANCO Violations


Defendant appealed his convictions, following a jury trial, for violating a domestic-abuse no-contact order (DANCO) and for obstructing legal process. Defendant sought reversal of both convictions for insufficient evidence. He argued that the State failed to prove that (1) he knew there was a DANCO that prohibited him from having contact with his wife and (2) he obstructed legal process by intentionally and substantially frustrating the arresting officer’s ability to apprehend him for the violation. Noting that the circumstances proved were equally consistent with a reasonable inference that defendant did not know the DANCO was in effect, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial evidence failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant knew there was an active DANCO. However, the evidence was sufficient to support the obstructing-legal-process conviction. Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

A21-1512 State v. Burba (St. Louis County)




Alcohol Testing

Defendant challenged her conviction of driving while impaired (DWI), arguing that the District Court erred by instructing the jury not to evaluate the reliability of the DataMaster (DMT) breath-testing machine. Noting that defendant failed to present evidence challenging the reliability of the machine, the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by providing the instruction. However, correction of the District Court’s sentencing order was required. Affirmed in part and remanded.

A22-0018 State v. Abara (Dakota County)


Expert Testimony

Helpful to Jury

In this direct appeal from the District Court’s judgment of conviction for threats of violence, defendant argued the District Court abused its discretion by admitting (1) expert testimony on the common characteristics of battered women and (2) hearsay evidence of a prior inconsistent statement by a witness. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by admitting expert testimony on battered woman syndrome, including the common reasons for which a victim recants an allegation of domestic violence, as it was helpful to the jury. Furthermore, the hearsay evidence was admissible. Affirmed.

A21-1443 State v. Abdi (Stearns County)



Attempted Murder

Sufficiency of the Evidence

The state accused defendant of attacking another man in a parking ramp, kicking and stomping on the man’s head, and leaving him cognitively disabled. The jury found defendant guilty of attempted second-degree murder. Defendant appealed from his conviction, claiming, inter alia, that the evidence did not support the guilty verdict, the prosecutor engaged in misconduct, and the District Court improperly excluded evidence. Noting that ceasing one’s conduct and fleeing the scene after repeatedly kicking and stomping a man’s head to the point of crushing his brain is wholly consistent with intending to beat the man to death and then escape the consequences of the crime, the Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence readily supported the guilty verdict. Affirmed.

A21-1377 State v. McFee (Hennepin County)



Plea Withdrawal


Following his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm, defendant argued that he was entitled to withdraw his guilty plea because it was unintelligent and therefore manifestly unjust. Defendant claimed his attorney misadvised him that he could enter a guilty plea and still preserve his right to challenge the state’s evidence for the first time on appeal. The Court of Appeals concluded that defendant’s attorney affirmatively misadvised appellant that he could challenge the suppression issue on appeal, even though defendant pleaded guilty and did not challenge that issue in District Court, and that, therefore, the District Court abused its discretion, and defendant’s guilty plea was unintelligent. Reversed and remanded.

A20-0379 State v. Prowell (Hennepin County)



Plea Withdrawal

Voluntary & Intelligent

In this direct appeal from the judgment of conviction for first-degree assault, defendant argued that he must be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea because the record did not establish that the plea was voluntary and intelligent. Noting that the plea colloquy lacked the usual rule 15.01 inquiry into the intelligence of the plea itself, and the record was comparatively bereft of information relating to defendant’s understanding of his constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals concluded that the record failed to establish that defendant understood the rights he was waiving as a result of his guilty plea, and that therefore, withdrawal of defendant’s guilty plea was necessary to avoid a manifest injustice. Reversed and remanded.

A21-1643 State v. Bell (Washington County)



Postconviction Relief


Pro se petitioner challenged the denial of his third petition for postconviction relief from his convictions for first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, arguing that the Minnesota Department of Corrections violated his constitutional right of access to the courts by limiting his ability to adequately access the correctional facility’s law-library resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the dismissal of his second post-conviction petition. The Court of Appeals concluded that the issue raised by petitioner was not cognizable under Minn. Stat. ch. 590, and as such, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying the petition. Affirmed.

A22-0481 Udoh v. State (Hennepin County)



Pretrial Appeals

Critical Impact

After police found a golf cart, two kayaks, and other stolen items in a shed, defendant and his brother were charged with receiving stolen property. Shortly after the theft, the victim reached out to a law enforcement investigator to inform them of a subsequent conversation with defendant about the incident while at a music festival. But the State did not follow up with the victim to obtain details of the conversation. After the start of defendant’s trial for receiving stolen property 11 months later, the state sought to introduce evidence of the contents of that conversation. But defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was untimely in violation of discovery rules. The District Court agreed and suppressed the evidence, including any reference to the content of the alleged conversation at the music festival. The state appealed. The Court of Appeals concluded that, given the evidence supporting the conviction that the state had before trial began, the suppression of the admission did not seriously jeopardize the state’s case, and thus the state did not demonstrate that the suppressed evidence had a critical impact on its case. Affirmed.

A22-0701 State v. Oliver (Wabasha County)



Probation Revocation

Need for Confinement

Defendant was convicted of and on probation for stalking and violating a domestic-abuse no-contact order when he engaged in a series of crimes, including child neglect, drunk driving, and swindling. On appeal from the order revoking his probation, defendant argued that the District Court improperly relied on his unemployment and that the record did not support the finding that the need for his confinement outweighed the policies favoring probation. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not rely on defendant’s unemployment as a ground for revoking his probation, and the record supported the District Court’s factual findings. Affirmed.

A22-0099 State v. Buie (Steele County)




Upward Departures

In this appeal from the final judgment of conviction for second-degree unintentional murder, defendant challenged his 270-months sentence, arguing that the District Court abused its discretion by imposing an upward departure that unfairly exaggerated the criminality of his conduct. Noting that defendant agreed that he treated the victim with particular cruelty, and that his sentence was not an outlier, the Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by imposing an upward departure. Affirmed.

A21-1629 State v. Williams (Benton County)

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