November 2019

MANSLAUGHTER

FIRST-DEGREE MANSLAUGHTER PREDICATED ON FIFTH-DEGREE ASSAULT DOES NOT REQUIRE PROOF THAT DEATH OR GREAT BODILY HARM WAS REASONABLY FORESEEABLE

Appellant was convicted of first-degree manslaughter predicated on an underlying fifth-degree assault after he was involved in an altercation outside of a bar. Appellant acted aggressively toward the victim’s friend, after which the victim came out of the bar and began poking, pushing, and yelling at Appellant. Appellant then punched the victim once in the face, and the victim fell to the ground, hit his head, and became unresponsive. The victim later died at the hospital as a result of blunt force head trauma and his elevated blood alcohol concentration. At trial, the district court denied Appellant’s request to instruct the jury that first-degree manslaughter predicated on a fifth-degree assault requires that death or great bodily harm be reasonably foreseeable. Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2) identifies two ways that first-degree manslaughter may be committed: a person “violates section 609.224 [fifth-degree assault] and causes the death of another or causes the death of another in committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor offense with such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable…” The Court of Appeals held that the “reasonably foreseeable” modifier (italicized above) applies to only the misdemeanor-offense clause.

The Supreme Court agrees with the district court and Court of Appeals. The plain language of section 609.20(2) makes clear that the modifier does not apply to the fifth-degree assault clause. The statute lists two predicate offenses, and the Legislature repeats the harm language (“causes the death of another”) for each, clearly articulating two separate forms of first-degree manslaughter. The reasonably foreseeable modifier comes after only the misdemeanor-offense clause. If that language applied to both forms of manslaughter, the court reasons the Legislature would not have included the harm language twice in the statute. This conclusion is further supported by the last-antecedent rule of grammar, which states that “a limiting phrase ordinarily modifies only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.”

Thus, the court holds that when fifth-degree assault is the crime underlying a first-degree manslaughter charge, section 609.22(2) does not require the State to prove that death or great bodily harm was a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s conduct. Appellant’s conviction is affirmed.

State v. Stay, 935 N.W.2d 428 (Minn. Nov. 13, 2019).

FOURTH AMENDMENT

REASONABLE SUSPICION FOR STOP WHEN OFFICER OBSERVES DRIVER NOT WEARING A SEATBELT

Appellant was charged with DWI and violating a driver’s license restriction after being pulled over for a cracked windshield and not wearing a seatbelt. Before trial, he moved to suppress evidence, arguing there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop of his vehicle. The district court addressed only the cracked windshield, finding it provided the officer with a sufficient basis to stop Appellant. After a stipulated facts trial, Appellant was convicted of both offenses. The Court of Appeals found the officer was not justified in stopping Appellant for his cracked windshield, but concluded that the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion that Appellant was not wearing his seatbelt.

Driving without a seatbelt is a crime, but the officer must be able to articulate facts that support the conclusion that the officer observed the driver not wearing a seatbelt. The Supreme Court finds that the officer here articulated sufficient facts showing he observed Appellant not wearing a seatbelt: he told Appellant more than once he was stopped for the cracked windshield and not wearing a seatbelt, his incident report indicated the reason for the stop was Appellant’s failure to wear a seatbelt, and he testified that he pulled Appellant over for not wearing a seatbelt.

After Appellant was pulled over, the officer observed Appellant actually wearing a seatbelt. However, the officer testified that he believed Appellant’s seatbelt was off while he was driving and that, when he approached the vehicle, he observed a vehicle part hanging down, which could have led the officer to believe Appellant’s seatbelt was unfastened. Thus, even if the officer’s observation that the seatbelt was off was mistaken, the mistake was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstance. Appellant’s convictions are affirmed.

State v. Poehler, No. A18-0353, 2019 WL 6334370 (Minn. Nov. 27, 2019).

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