Raeleen Kay Johnson had been convicted in Waseca County District Court on two counts of deprivation of parental custodial rights and one count of falsely reporting a crime. Johnson, of Nicollet, Minnesota, had called Waseca police early in 2019 claiming the father of their young son had sent her a text threatening her and the child. Police took the child from the father’s custody and issued a three-day protective order.
When Johnson was questioned by police, she said the text came from an unknown number, but that she thought the message was from the father, Blaine Root. When detectives searched her phone, they found that she had conducted several internet searches involving call-spoofing applications. Subpoenaed documentation showed that Johnson used an app to make it appear as though Root had contacted her and her mother. She was convicted of depriving a parent of custodial rights, a gross misdemeanor.
In August 2020, Johnson began frequently keeping the child from Root, saying that the child had been hurt and gotten sick while in Root’s care. After Johnson continued keeping Root from the child, Root reported for a third time to Waseca police that Johnson was keeping the child in violation of his custody rights. By the time an officer tried to reach Johnson, she had taken the child to an emergency room in Mankato, telling staff that the child had a headache, cold symptoms and trouble with his vision.
When Waseca County police finally reached Johnson, they asked her to bring the child to the station in response to her allegations of abuse by Root. Instead, she returned to the E.R., where a doctor said emergency treatment wasn’t needed for the child.
Once police determined where Johnson was, they went to the emergency room and arrested her. The state charged her with one count (with a second added later) of felony deprivation of parental custodial rights by concealment and one count of misdemeanor falsely reporting a crime.
In May 2021, a district court jury returned guilty verdicts for all three counts, and Johnson was placed on four years’ probation. The Minnesota Court of Appeals last year found that insufficient evidence supported Johnson’s conviction for deprivation of parental custodial rights by concealment, but sufficient evidence supported her conviction of falsely reporting a crime.
Johnson petitioned for review on the issue of whether the state was required to prove that she was in Waseca County when she made the false report. She argued that the state failed to meet its burden to show venue in Waseca County because evidence at trial showed that Johnson was in Blue Earth County when she called authorities.
The state argued that Johnson had forfeited her venue argument under the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure by failing to raise it before trial. Minnesota statute 627.01 requires that “every criminal cause shall be tried in the county where the offense was committed,” with county defined as “any county where any element of the offense was committed.”
Johnson also argued that even if the location of the police officer who received her false report could support the venue element of the crime, her conviction must still be reversed because the state did not prove that the detective who took the call was in Waseca County when he received the report.
The court allowed that the state relied on only circumstantial evidence to show venue at the earlier trial.
It determined as factual that Waseca police had repeatedly tried to get Johnson to come and talk to them with her son present. Johnson never responded to numerous calls and messages from police.
“The only inference that can be reasonably drawn from the circumstances proved, as a whole, is that (the detective) was in Waseca County when he received the false report,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in her opinion.
Johnson maintained that because Waseca police knew that she was 30 minutes away from the police station, the court could infer that the detective trying to reach her might have been somewhere within a 30-minute drive of the station, including outside Waseca County.
The court disagreed, pointing out that the detective worked for the Waseca Police Department, was working the case in Waseca County before calling Johnson and almost certainly was never outside the county borders. In dismissing that part of Johnson’s argument, the court pointed to State v. Tscheu, a 2008 case acknowledging that a defendant’s alternative theory was “theoretically possible” but rejecting the argument and upholding the conviction because there was “no physical evidence in the record to provide reasonable support for this hypothesis.”
“It is simply not reasonable on this record to infer that (the detective) was anywhere other than Waseca County when the call took place,” wrote Gildea. “We hold that the circumstantial evidence presented by the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Brass received the false report of a crime in Waseca County.”