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State v. Streiff

January 29, 2004

STATE OF MINNESOTA, APPELLANT,
v.
KATHRYN LORRAINE STREIFF, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. To establish "manifest injustice" under Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.07, where necessary to the court's authority to accept a plea to a lesser offense over the objection of the prosecutor, a defendant must show that it would be an abuse of prosecutorial discretion to proceed on the original charge.

2. Evidence that a victim, who is defendant's family member, objects to prosecution of the defendant on the original charge and that the victim's family may be financially prejudiced by a conviction of defendant on the original charge is insufficient to show that it would be a manifest injustice to not accept a plea to a lesser offense.

Reversed and remanded.

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

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

Concurring, Anderson, Paul H., J.

OPINION

Respondent Kathryn L. Streiff (Streiff) was charged with two felonies, criminal vehicular operation resulting in substantial bodily harm under Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 2a(4) (2002), and criminal vehicular operation leaving the scene of the crime under Minn. Stat. §á609.21, subd. 2a(7) (2002). Over the prosecutor's objection, the district court granted Streiff's motion under Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.07 to plead guilty to two lesser-included gross misdemeanor offenses. The district court found that although the state had sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, it would be a manifest injustice to have Streiff prosecuted for a felony. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the state had failed to show an abuse of the district court's discretion. State v. Streiff, No. C8-02-1857, 2003 WL 1702255, at *1 (Minn. App. Apr. 1, 2003). Because the collateral consequences of prosecuting Streiff on the felony charges do not constitute a manifest injustice under Rule 15.07, we reverse.

On January 5, 2002, Streiff and her husband James Streiff (James) were involved in a one-car rollover accident in Olmsted County. Witnesses reported that Streiff was on the driver's side of the vehicle, or was getting out of the driver's side, when they arrived at the scene. Witnesses found James injured and lying in a ditch near the vehicle. Witnesses reported that Streiff had wandered off from the accident scene and was found among the trees a short distance away. A preliminary breath test of Streiff taken at the scene registered a blood alcohol content of 0.162. Streiff then submitted to a blood test that indicated a blood alcohol content of 0.17.

A state trooper took a statement from James two days after the accident. James stated that he could not remember the accident, but remembered that he and his wife had been drinking prior to the accident. The trooper obtained a release for James's medical records. Based on the release, James's treating physician reported that James sustained substantial bodily harm as a result of the accident. When James discovered that his medical records had been released to the county attorney's office and were being used to prosecute his wife, he sent letters to the Minnesota State Patrol revoking all releases of medical information; the hospital revoking the medical information release; and the Assistant Dakota County Attorney, stating his opposition to the prosecution of his wife and his concern that his wife would lose her job if convicted of a felony.

After being charged with the two felonies, Streiff filed a motion under Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.07 requesting that she be allowed to plead to a lesser offense. Under Rule 15.07, a district court may accept a plea of guilty to a lesser offense if (1) "the court is satisfied following [a] hearing that the prosecutor cannot introduce evidence sufficient to justify the submission of the offense charged to the jury" or (2) "it would be a manifest injustice not to accept the plea." The district court granted the motion over the state's objection and accepted a guilty plea from Streiff to two lesser-included, gross misdemeanor charges, violations of Minn. Stat. § 609.21 subd. 2b(4) and 2b(7) (2002). The district court noted that the state had sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on the felony charges, but found that to do so would effect a "manifest injustice." The court relied on five factors: (1) James did not want Streiff to have a felony conviction; (2) Streiff's family would be harmed by the felony conviction by Streiff's possible loss of employment; (3) public policy concerns of deterrence and punishment would be met by the conviction of two gross misdemeanors; (4) the offense was an unintended consequence of an intentional act; and (5) Streiff had accepted responsibility for her actions.

A majority of the court of appeals affirmed the district court, holding that the state failed to show an abuse of discretion by the district court. State v. Streiff, 2003 WL 1702255, at *1. The court stated that while the prosecutor has the final decision on what to prosecute, the court retained the authority on sentencing. Id. at *2. The dissenting opinion argued that the circumstances were not sufficient to show a manifest injustice, noting that this court has set a higher standard for "manifest injustice" in the comparable context of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea under Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05. Id. at *3. Additionally, the dissent observed that the factors relied upon by the district court to constitute manifest injustice are factors that commonly appear in criminal cases and could not be considered under the sentencing guidelines to support a downward sentencing departure. Id. at *4 n.1.

Streiff does not argue that the prosecution abused its discretion in bringing the felony charges. Neither does Streiff argue that she was selectively prosecuted for some discriminatory reason. Instead, she essentially argues that the potential loss of her employment, coupled with the objection by the victim to the felony prosecution, amount to manifest injustice. The state argues that the factors do not rise to the level of manifest injustice and that the district court's acceptance of a plea to lesser charges violates the separation of powers provision of the Minnesota Constitution.

A. Separation of Powers*fn1

A review of the history of Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.07 demonstrates the state's separation of powers concerns. Prior to 1980, Rule 15.07 did not place any conditions on the district court's discretion to accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge over the objection of the prosecutor. It simply stated "the court may accept a plea of guilty to a lesser included offense or to an offense of a lesser degree."

In 1980, we decided State v. Carriere, 290 N.W.2d 618, 619 (Minn. 1980), which addressed the following certified question from the district court: "Under Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure 15.07, can the court accept a plea to an offense of lesser degree over the voiced opposition of the county attorney?" We said:

If the second sentence of Rule 15.07 were interpreted as leaving to the trial court's complete discretion the decision whether to accept a guilty plea opposed by the prosecutor, the [separation of powers] constitutional argument the prosecutor makes in this case would have merit. We believe, however, that conditions can be placed on the trial court's acceptance of such a plea which will eliminate the danger of judicial intrusion into an area reserved for prosecutorial discretion.

Id. To satisfy separation of powers concerns, Carriere conditioned the district court's acceptance of the defendant's motion on whether the prosecutor can "demonstrate to the trial court that there is a reasonable likelihood the state can withstand a motion to dismiss the charge at the close of the state's case in chief." Id. We concluded that if the prosecutor can satisfy this condition, the district court "should refuse to accept the tendered guilty plea." Id. at 621.

In 1983, Rule 15.07 was amended to reflect the condition suggested in Carriere, but the amendment added a second condition, that the district court could also grant the defendant's motion over the prosecutor's objection when "it would be [a] manifest injustice not to accept the plea." Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.07. The phrase "manifest ...


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