SIXTH AMENDMENT: COVID LIMITATIONS DID NOT VIOLATE RIGHT TO A PUBLIC TRIAL

Appellant faced a jury trial for murder and arson. His trial was delayed due to COVID-19. Per the Minnesota Supreme Court’s executive orders, the district court created a COVID safety plan, which allowed the district court to recommence jury trials. The plan took notice of the resources and capacity of the court facilities, required social distancing, and allowed the public and media to observe proceedings via ITV from other rooms within the courthouse. Given the setup of the courtroom in question, public viewing within the actual courtroom itself was not possible. Appellant did not object to any of the COVID-related trial restrictions, and his counsel acknowledged the need for social distancing. After the trial, the jury found Appellant guilty on all counts. On appeal, Appellant argues the COVID restrictions violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. First, the Supreme Court finds the closure did not “seriously affect[] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” The Court looks to State v. Benton, 858 N.W.2d 535 (Minn. 2015), in which the defendant argued that a courtroom closure he requested violated his right to a public trial. In that case, the court recognized that a violation of the right to a public trial is a form of structural error, but noted that reversal is not automatic when such a violation occurs. Instead, the court may exercise its discretion to reverse a conviction, if the closure seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Thus, the Court holds that, whether the error is affirmatively invited or simply unobjected to, the Court will not exercise its discretion to grant relief to correct the unpreserved public trial right structural error unless the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Here, the COVID protocols were carefully considered and allowed the trial to proceed without further extended delays. The Court sees no reason why a failure to correct the alleged error would cause the public to seriously question of fairness and integrity of the judicial system. Thus, the court finds it is not permitted to exercise its discretion to grant appellants requested relief. Appellant’s conviction is affirmed. Pulczinski v. State, 977 N.W.2d 347 (Minn. Apr. 6, 2022).

ARSON: FIRST-DEGREE ARSON DOES NOT REQUIRE PROOF THAT THE DEFENDANT ACTED “UNLAWFULLY”

At his trial for first-degree arson, Appellant’s daughter testified she accidentally started the fire that burned down Appellant’s house. However, the State’s expert testified the fire was intentionally set in three places. A jury convicted Appellant, and he requests a new trial on appeal, arguing the State did not prove he acted “unlawfully” when he set fire to his home. Minn. Stat. § 609.561, subd. 1, states that “[w]hoever unlawfully by means of fire or explosives, intentionally destroys or damages any building that is used as a dwelling at the time the act is committed... commits arson in the first degree.” Based on the statute’s plain language, the Court of Appeals finds that “unlawfully” means “without authorization,” or without the license, permit, or written permission described in Minn. Stat. 609.564, which states that a person who sets a fire with such permission from the fire department does not commit arson. This interpretation is supported by the structure of the arson statute and is supported by the common meaning of “unlawful.” However, the Court holds that the State is not required to prove a defendant acted without this authorization as a separate element of an arson offense. Instead, because acts of arson are “ordinarily dangerous to society,” the Court determines that “unlawfully” in the arson statute presents an exception to liability, not an element of arson. The burden of proving that exception falls on the defendant. The Court concludes there is sufficient evidence to support Appellant's conviction, as the state proved he intentionally burned down his home and Appellant did not show that he was permitted to do so. The Court of Appeals also affirms the district court's decision to deny Appellant’s request for a durational departure and the district court’s award of restitution. However, the case is remanded for resentencing, as Appellant’s sentence was based on an incorrectly calculated criminal history score. State v. Beganovic, 947 N.W.2d 278 (Minn. Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2022).

SHOPLIFTING: MATERIAL MANUFACTURED FOR LAWFUL PURPOSE BUT MODIFIED TO ASSIST A SHOPLIFTER WAS “DESIGNED” FOR AN UNLAWFUL PURPOSE

Appellant was caught by police with unpaid merchandise from two stores in her bag, with aluminum foil wrapped around the antitheft sensors. After a jury trial, Appellant was convicted of possessing a shoplifting device. The district court denied her petition for postconviction relief. Minn. Stat. § 609.521(b) prohibits possessing “any device, gear, or instrument designed to assist in shoplifting or defeating an electronic surveillance system with intent to use the same to shoplift and thereby commit theft.” Appellant argues her conviction should be reversed because State failed to prove that aluminum foil was designed by the original manufacturer for shoplifting. The Court of Appeals rejects Appellant’s interpretation of the statute that would require that the original design of the item in question be to assist in shoplifting. Any raw material, such as aluminum foil, can be designed for one purpose by the manufacturer but thereafter altered by a user for an altogether different purpose. It is the altered design that is relevant. The district court is affirmed. Douglas v. State, 973 N.W.2d 925 (Minn. Apr. 18, 2022).

INTERFERENCE WITH PRIVACY: RECORDING A WOMAN IN THE SAME ROOM DOES NOT AMOUNT TO USING A RECORDING DEVICE “THROUGH THE WINDOW OR ANY OTHER APERTURE” OF A DWELLING

Appellant spent the night with a woman at her home. During an investigation into the woman’s claims that Appellant sent naked pictures from her phone to his own phone, without her consent, Appellant told police he also took a nude video of the woman while in bed with her. He pleaded guilty to interference with privacy. Prior to sentencing, Appellant moved to withdraw the plea, but his motion was denied and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court emphasizes that, while voyeurism has evolved given rapid advances in technology, it is not the Court’s role to determine what types of voyeurism should be criminalized, only what types are criminalized under existing law. As is relevant here, Minn. Stat. § 609.746, subd. 1(b), makes it a crime to (1) enter another’s property; (2) “surreptitiously… use[] any device for… recording… sounds or events through the window or any other aperture of a house or place of dwelling of another”; and (3) do[] so with intent to intrude upon or interfere with the privacy of a member of the household. The parties disagree as to the meaning of “aperture.” The State argues that a camera can satisfy this requirement, but the Supreme Court disagrees. The statute requires that the aperture be “of a house or place of dwelling of another,” meaning that the aperture belongs to or is connected to the house or dwelling. Reluctantly, the court concludes that Appellant’s guilty plea is not accurate, because the plain language of section 609.746, subd. 1(b), does not apply to his conduct, recording a naked woman without her consent while in the same room as the woman. State v. McReynolds, 973 N.W.2d 314 (Minn. Apr. 27, 2022).

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