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A group of people being arrested by police on Interstate 94 in 2020
State patrol officers make arrests on I-94 during an anti-Trump protest in Minneapolis on Nov. 4, 2020. (Photo: Tim Evans/NurPhoto via AP)

Olson’s theories of innocence rejected

Former SLA member loses challenge to I-94 protest charge

On Nov. 4, 2020, a large group of protesters walked on to I-94 in Minneapolis near Cedar Avenue. About 650 participants were arrested, including Sara Jane Olson, whose appeal from her conviction was rejected on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

In the 1970s, Olson, now 75, was a member of the militant Symbionese Liberation Army. She was a fugitive for years, changing her name from Kathleen Ann Soliah and settling eventually in the Twin Cities. In 1999, she was arrested at her St. Paul home for her role in a 1975 plot to blow up two Los Angeles police cars and a Sacramento-area bank robbery that killed a woman. She returned to St. Paul after she was paroled in 2009 from a California prison.

In State v. Olson, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Hennepin County District Court’s adjudication of her guilt of a petty misdemeanor for using a controlled-access highway as a pedestrian. Judge Michelle Larkin wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Peter Reyes and Jill Halbrooks.  The evidence of Olson’s guilt was sufficient to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the court said. Her “theories of innocence” were unreasonable and based on conjecture, the court said.

Crowd of about 650

Olson tried her case in district court, with two law enforcement officers testifying. At the time of the protest, law enforcement encircled about 650 demonstrators, including Olson and told them they were under arrest. Police photographed her standing in the right lane of I-94, although the time of the photo is not stated in the opinion. Olson had photographs showing ingress and egress from the freeway in the walls and fencing near the area where the photos were taken, suggesting people could have left the encirclement.  But the photos were taken a year after the protest.

Olson’s motion for a judgment of acquittal was denied. Her sentence was a fine of $378.

Circumstantial evidence

Olson contended that the district court did not apply the correct standard for a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, improperly shifted the burden of proof to Olson and did not consider whether the circumstances proved are inconsistent with a rational hypothesis other than guilt. Her arguments suggested that the district court was required to apply the circumstantial-evidence standard of review when acting as a fact finder, the court said.

But that is not the law, said the Court of Appeals. “[A] fact-finder does not prefer one form of evidence over the other when determining guilt at trial,” Larkin wrote. “[A] fact-finder at trial does not distinguish between direct and circumstantial evidence when determining whether the state has proved a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Olson argued that under the circumstantial-evidence standard, the district court was required to articulate whether the circumstances supported any rational inference other than guilt.


Olson was convicted of violating Minn. Stat. § 169.305, subd. 1(c), which provides authority to prohibit or regulate the use of any … highway by pedestrians, bicycles, or other nonmotorized traffic, or by motorized bicycles, or by any class or kind of traffic which is found to be incompatible with the normal and safe flow of traffic.”

At trial, the district court took judicial notice of the fact that the commissioner of transportation exercised such authority by issuing order number 30757, which is codified at Minn. R. 8810.0050 (2019). It says that the use of highway roadways and ramps by pedestrians, bicycles or other nonmotorized traffic is prohibited.

The state had to prove that I-94 is a “controlled-access highway,” the MnDOT commissioner prohibited pedestrians from using I-94, Olson used I-94 as a pedestrian, Olson’s use was incompatible with the normal and safe flow of traffic, and the incident took place in Hennepin County on the date alleged.

The court applied a circumstantial-evidence standard and said it was reasonable to infer that Olson was among the group of demonstrators that walked on the paved portion of the freeway or its on ramp.

But Olson argued that the circumstances proved are also consistent with a rational hypothesis other than guilt.

“[S]he argues that the evidence does not ‘rule out’ the possibility that, prior to being encircled by police, she never set foot on the paved roadway or entrance ramp. She posits that she ‘could have’ been encircled by police while standing on the grassy area near the roadway and that she could have reached that grassy area by using an entry point in the nearby wall or fencing or by walking on the grassy area adjacent to the entrance ramp and roadway. She also posits that she could have been a passenger in one of the vehicles that blocked traffic and ‘herded’ to the arrest location on the I-94 pavement,” Larkin wrote.

Inferences inconsistent with guilt must be reasonable, the court emphasized. “The circumstances proved do not reasonably support Olson’s alternative theories of innocence,” it said.

Law enforcement did not find people joining the demonstrators through entry points in the walls or fencing, the court noted. It also noted that the people on the grass were asked to leave and did, and there is no evidence connecting Olson to a vehicle.

“ We therefore hold that the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Olson used a paved portion of I-94 as a pedestrian and to sustain the district court’s finding of guilt.”

The attorney for Olson could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.

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