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State v. Reiners

July 10, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, PETITIONER, APPELLANT,
v.
CECIL JOHN REINERS, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. The district court's determination that a criminal defendant's racially-neutral explanation for his peremptory challenge of an African-American prospective juror was a pretext for racial discrimination was clearly erroneous.

2. The district court's erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge automatically entitles respondent to a new trial without a showing of prejudice.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hanson, Justice.

OPINION

Following a jury trial, respondent Cecil John Reiners was found guilty of assault in the first degree for striking Jose Padilla in the head with a wooden board. The court of appeals reversed the conviction, concluding that the trial court committed reversible error by denying Reiners' peremptory challenge of an African-American prospective juror and, as a result of that error, Reiners was entitled to a new trial. We affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

Reiners owns Bloomington Steel and Supply, a company that fabricates support structures used in the construction of buildings. Reiners subleased a portion of the Bloomington Steel work area to another company, Keystar. Before this incident, Reiners had discouraged his employees from speaking Spanish in the work area because he believed that specific instructions pertaining to the operation of machinery were not adequately translated from English to Spanish.

On October 18, 2000, Reiners noticed one of his employees, Jose Diaz, in the work area conversing in Spanish with a Keystar employee, Jose Padilla. Reiners told the two workers "We don't speak Spanish here" and ordered Diaz to return to his assigned work area. Reiners also told Padilla not to interact with the Bloomington Steel employees. Reiners left to eat lunch and returned to the work area around 12:30 P.M. He again encountered Diaz and Padilla sitting at a table with another Bloomington Steel employee. Reiners approached the table and told Padilla to leave the premises.

According to Reiners, Padilla refused to leave and threw a piece of wood at Reiners, hitting him in the forehead. According to Diaz, after Padilla refused to leave, Reiners grabbed a wooden board and made a threatening gesture as if he planned to strike Padilla with it. Diaz also testified that Padilla raised his arms in a defensive position and stated: "Go ahead." Reiners struck Padilla with the board in the side of his head.

Reiners then fled the scene and was eventually arrested by the police in western Minnesota two days later. As a result of the blow, Padilla sustained skull fractures and hematomas on both the left and right sides of his head. He spent one month in the hospital and, at the time of the trial, was undergoing therapy for memory loss. The state charged Reiners with assault in the first degree, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.221, subd. 1 (2002).

Reiners' case went to trial on March 26, 2001. The court did not use the jury-selection process suggested by Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.02, subd. 4(3)(a), whereby prospective jurors equal to the total number necessary for trial plus the number of peremptory challenges are drawn and peremptory challenges are exercised alternatively after both parties have examined all prospective jurors. Instead, the court used the process preferred for first-degree murder cases, under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.02, subd. 4(3)(c), whereby one prospective juror is drawn at a time and peremptory challenges are made at the completion of the examination of each juror.

The second prospective juror examined by counsel was an African-American woman. Reiners' counsel questioned her first. She stated that her father had worked as a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia for approximately nine years and that she saw him "about once every two years." She also stated that she had participated in police training at a police academy while she was in high school. Although she "loved" her exposure to police course work, she said that she did not pursue a law enforcement career because her family was concerned for her safety.

At the completion of the examination, Reiners' counsel exercised a peremptory challenge against this prospective juror. The state objected to the challenge based on Georgia v. McCollum, 505 U.S. 42 (1992), and Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The district court excused the jury panel from the courtroom and asked Reiners' counsel to explain the reasons for his challenge. Counsel explained that his reason for excluding the prospective juror was her significant exposure to law enforcement. He said he planned to question the actions of the police and that allowing the prospective juror to sit on the jury would be tantamount to impaneling a police officer. The state argued that the prospective juror's exclusion was pretextual because she was an African American, she was one of only a few minorities in the entire panel, and the victim was Hispanic. After the state's response, the court stated:

Well, I do think [Reiners' peremptory challenge is] a bit [pretextual] reasoned because you asked her—or she volunteered and gave you, in one of your open-ended questions, that she would not believe a person just because they were a police officer. I think that was a very telling answer that supports your side of the case more so than it does the State. Most of the answers, I thought, were more favorable to you than to the State. So I am going to deny the strike, keep her on.

The district court allowed Reiners' counsel to continue questioning the prospective juror after its ruling on the Batson challenge. The state then questioned her and accepted her as a juror. The jury ultimately found Reiners guilty of assault in the first degree and the trial court entered judgment of conviction. Reiners was sentenced to 91 months in prison.

Reiners appealed his conviction and argued that the district court erred by denying his peremptory challenge. The court of appeals concluded that the prospective juror's exposure to law enforcement through her father and through her brief training in high school was "a valid, race-neutral reason" for Reiners to exclude her. State v. Reiners, 644 N.W.2d 118, 124 (Minn. App. 2002). It also concluded that the district court applied the wrong standard, which had the effect of improperly shifting the burden of proof on the issue of intentional discrimination from the state to Reiners. Id. at 125. The court of appeals reversed Reiners' conviction, holding that the district court committed reversible error by denying Reiners' peremptory challenge and that Reiners was automatically entitled to a new trial. Id. at 127. We granted the state's petition for review.

I.

The state argues that the court of appeals erroneously discounted the district court's factual finding of pretext and that the district court's finding was not clearly erroneous. We have recognized that the existence of racial discrimination in the exercise of a peremptory challenge is a factual determination that is to be made by the district court and should be given great deference on review. State v. Taylor, 650 N.W.2d 190, 200-01 (Minn. 2002). Accordingly, we have said that the district court's factual determination will not be reversed unless it is clearly erroneous. Id. at 201 (citing State v. James, 520 N.W.2d 399, 403-04 (Minn. 1994)).

Under Batson, the state's exercise of a peremptory challenge against a potential juror on the basis of race is a denial of equal protection for two reasons. First, racial discrimination in the selection of a jury violates the defendant's "right to be tried by a jury whose members are selected pursuant to nondiscriminatory criteria" and "puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded." Batson, 476 U.S. at 85-86 (citing Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880)). Second, racial discrimination in the selection of a jury violates the prospective juror's right to participate in jury service. Id. at 87. In McCollum, the United States Supreme Court relied upon the second reason to extend its holding in Batson to peremptory challenges made by criminal defendants. McCollum, 505 U.S. at 59. Thus, the state clearly has standing to make a Batson objection to a defendant's peremptory challenge.

In Batson, the Supreme Court established a three-step process to determine whether a peremptory challenge discriminates on the basis of race. 476 U.S. at 96-98. The Court has summarized the Batson analysis as follows:

[O]nce the opponent of a peremptory challenge has made out a prima facie case of racial discrimination (step one), the burden of production shifts to the proponent of the strike to come forward with a race-neutral explanation (step two). If a race-neutral explanation is tendered, the trial court must then decide (step three) whether the opponent of the strike has proved purposeful racial discrimination.

Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 767 (1995) (citing Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 358-59 (1991)).

The record suggests that the district court essentially began its Batson analysis at step two. The court of appeals ruled that the issue of whether the state established a prima facie case of discrimination was therefore moot. Reiners, 644 N.W.2d at 124; see also State v. Scott, 493 N.W.2d 546, 548 (Minn. 1992). Because Reiners did not seek review of that ruling, we will not consider the adequacy of the state's prima facie case for purposes of this appeal. We note, however, that the use of a peremptory challenge to remove a member of a racial minority does not necessarily establish a prima facie case of discrimination. For example, we have held that the state's use of a peremptory challenge to remove the only prospective African-American juror did not violate Batson. State v. Everett, 472 N.W.2d 864, 868-69 (Minn. 1991). We said that a prima facie case is established by showing (1) that a member of a racial minority has been peremptorily excluded and (2) that "circumstances of the case raise an inference that the exclusion was based on race." Id. at 868. We declined to determine whether a prima facie case had been made because the state's race-neutral explanation for the strike, that the juror was under age 25, was sufficient to defeat the Batson objection where the state peremptorily challenged all jurors under age 25.*fn1 Everett, 472 N.W.2d at 869.

Under step two of the Batson analysis, Reiners was only required to proffer a race-neutral reason for his peremptory challenge. The reason did not have to be "persuasive, or even plausible." Purkett, 514 U.S. at 767-68. Reiners' counsel stated that he chose to exclude the prospective juror because of her significant exposure to law enforcement. We have consistently held that a family member's involvement with the legal system is a legitimate race-neutral reason for the state to exercise a peremptory challenge. See State v. Martin, 614 N.W.2d 214, 222 (Minn. 2000); State v. Greenleaf, 591 N.W.2d 488, 501 (Minn. 1999); Scott, 493 N.W.2d at 549. We view the involvement of a prospective juror or a close family member in law enforcement to be an equally race-neutral reason for a defendant to exercise a peremptory challenge. We conclude, therefore, that Reiners articulated a valid race-neutral reason for his peremptory challenge.

The district court was then required to decide whether the state carried its burden of proving that Reiners' stated reason was pretextual and that the challenge was actually motivated by racial discrimination. We conclude that the court applied the wrong standard to that decision and, as a consequence, the court's factual determination did not support the conclusion of pretext and was clearly erroneous.

First, we observe that the district court should have more clearly demarcated the steps of its Batson analysis. It is important for the court to announce on the record its analysis of each of the three steps of the Batson analysis and, if it reaches step three, to state fully its factual findings, including any credibility determinations. Here the court did not state any conclusion as to whether the state had made out a prima facie case of racial discrimination. As noted above, that conclusion is not dictated by the sole fact that the prospective juror was a member of a racial minority. And, although the court asked Reiners' counsel to explain his reasons for the peremptory challenge, presumably moving to the second step of the analysis, it is unclear whether the court required that explanation because a prima facie case had been shown. Further, it is unclear whether the court rejected Reiners' explanation as being insufficiently race-neutral or whether the court moved to the third step and evaluated Reiners' explanation in the context of the state's evidence of racial discrimination. The importance of clarity at each step of the analysis is that the opponent has the burden of proving a prima facie case, the proponent has the burden of production of a race-neutral explanation, and the opponent has the ultimate burden of proving pretext and discriminatory intent.

The lack of clarity in this record caused the court of appeals to assume that the district court had found that a prima facie case had been shown and to conclude that the court had combined the second and third steps in a way that improperly shifted the burden of proof to Reiners. Reiners, 644 N.W.2d at 125. We will take the analysis further. Even if we assume that the court moved to the third step and made a credibility evaluation of the state's claim of racial discrimination, we conclude that the court did not apply the correct standard to that evaluation. The court's task is to "determine if [the opponent of the peremptory challenge] has established purposeful discrimination." Batson, 476 U.S. at 98. In so doing, it must consider all of the evidence and determine whether the opponent of the peremptory challenge has carried the burden of proving pretext and the existence of racial discrimination. Taylor, 650 N.W.2d at 202.

The district court concluded that Reiners' challenge was "a bit [pretextual"], but its explanation of that conclusion did not refer to the state's evidence of discrimination or pretext. Instead, the court's explanation referred to the credibility of the prospective juror's answers during voir dire on the question whether she could be fair to Reiners. The only fact determination that the court made was that the juror could be fair to Reiners. In this way, the court incorrectly used the criterion that is applicable to a challenge for cause for the analysis of a peremptory challenge. The court's determination that the prospective juror could be fair to Reiners was irrelevant to the Batson analysis.

Peremptory challenges are designed to be used to excuse prospective jurors who can be fair but are otherwise unsatisfactory to the challenging party. A prospective juror who could not be fair would be subject to removal for cause. See, e.g., State v. Bowers, 482 N.W.2d 774, 776 (Minn. 1992) (holding that juror's admitted biases provided a sufficient basis for removal for cause even though she was the only African American on the panel and she had ultimately said she could be fair). Peremptory challenges allow a party to strike a prospective juror that the party believes will be less fair than some others and, by this process, to select as final jurors the persons they believe will be most fair. The district court's factual determination that the prospective juror could be fair does not support the court's conclusion that the peremptory challenge was the result of racial discrimination and that conclusion is clearly erroneous.

Further, even if we were to assume that the district court did not fully explain on the record the basis for its conclusion, and that it did in fact consider other evidence in the record, we would conclude that the evidence of pretext and discriminatory intent was insufficient to overcome Reiners' race-neutral reason for the peremptory strike.

First, the state was unable to show any pattern of using peremptory challenges to exclude racial minorities from the jury. Given the decision to draw one juror at a time, and that this was only the second juror drawn, the state could not show that Reiners questioned this prospective juror differently than others or that this peremptory strike would result in a disproportionate exclusion of minorities from the final panel.*fn2 Although the state suggests that Reiners' questions were superficial, the questions did sufficiently uncover the race-neutral information about the prospective juror's involvement with law enforcement. We have previously recognized that "the parties must have considerable latitude in their questioning of potential jurors and it would be unusual for this court to question a party's failure to address a line of questioning helpful to it." Bowers, 482 N.W.2d at 777. And, because this was only the second juror questioned, the impact of the peremptory challenge on the ultimate make-up of the jury could not be determined. Reiners' counsel did state to the district court that there were two other racial minorities in the jury panel and that he rated them favorably based on their answers to the juror questionnaire.

Second, this case presents none of the indicia of pretext that were present in other cases where a finding of pretext has been sustained. For example, in State v. McRae, 494 N.W.2d 252, 254-57 (Minn. 1992), the state deviated from its normal pattern of questioning to ask an African-American prospective juror questions about the fairness of the jury system and then exaggerated the effect of the juror's answers, stating: "[S]he thought that basically, the system is unfair to minorities, and the defendant's being black is—and her being black she would overcompensate by basically letting this guy off." In State v. McDonough, 631 N.W.2d 373, 385-86 (Minn. 2001), we concluded that the state's reason for a peremptory challenge was not race-neutral because the questions that the state relied upon as providing race-neutral reasons would have elicited the same response from any fair-minded person.

Finally, while the state essentially provided no evidence of pretext, the explanation offered by Reiners was a significant race-neutral reason. A juror's involvement in law enforcement provides a legitimate basis for a defendant's peremptory challenge. Where the proponent's explanation of a peremptory challenge is race-neutral, and there is no evidence from which to infer an intent to discriminate, the Batson objection must be overruled. See, e.g., Bowers, 482 N.W.2d at 777 (holding that "[t]hese facts raise no inference of racially discriminatory motive" where the state made a challenge for cause of an African-American prospective juror who had admitted bias); Everett, 472 N.W.2d at 869 (holding that the state's peremptory challenge of the only African-American prospective juror did not raise an inference of a racially discriminatory motive where the state explained that the juror was stricken because she was too young); Moore, 438 N.W.2d at 107 (holding state's peremptory challenge of the only African-American prospective juror, based on the juror's prior arrest record, was racially neutral).

We conclude that the district court's denial of Reiners' peremptory challenge was clearly erroneous.*fn3

II.

The state next argues that the district court's erroneous denial of a peremptory challenge does not automatically entitle Reiners to a new trial. We have previously discussed the appropriate remedy where a reviewing court determines that a party's peremptory challenge was pretextual. In State v. Greenleaf, we considered whether the district court erred in allowing the state to exercise peremptory challenges against two Native-American prospective jurors where a Native-American defendant stood accused of aiding and abetting first-degree murder. 591 N.W.2d at 500. Before reviewing the court's Batson analysis, we stated that the appropriate remedy, where a peremptory challenge is ultimately proven to be pretextual, is an automatic new trial:

If a prosecutor had a prohibited discriminatory intent or motive for striking a juror, a defendant is automatically entitled to a new trial because harmless error impact analysis is inappropriate in the case of a defendant convicted by a petit jury ...


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