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State v. Tennin

February 12, 2004

STATE OF MINNESOTA, PETITIONER,
v.
SHAWNATEE MARIE TENNIN, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The co-payment required by Minn. Stat. § 611.17, subd. 1(c) (Supp. 2003), violates an indigent defendant's right to counsel under the United States and Minnesota Constitutions.

Certified question answered.

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

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blatz, Chief Justice

OPINION

We are asked to determine whether the State of Minnesota's imposition of a co-payment obligation on individuals who receive public defender services, in the manner prescribed by Minn. Stat. § 611.17, subd. 1(c) (Supp. 2003), is constitutional. The district court declared section 611.17, subdivision 1(c) (Supp. 2003), unconstitutional, enjoined further collection of co-payments, and certified the question to the court of appeals pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.03. We granted accelerated review.

On August 26, 2003, respondent Shawnatee Marie Tennin was charged with prostitution under Minn. Stat. § 609.324 (2002), and made her first appearance in district court shortly thereafter. Upon completing a public defender eligibility affidavit in which Tennin indicated that her entire income comprised $250 per month in public assistance, the district court determined that Tennin met the criteria for public defender eligibility. The co-payment statute, as amended in 2003, was applied and Tennin was obligated to pay a $50 co-payment for public defender assistance. Upon notification of her obligation to pay, Tennin declined representation, claiming that she could not afford the co-payment. Later, Tennin determined that she needed the assistance of counsel and paid the $50 co-payment. A public defender was subsequently appointed to assist her.

Through counsel, Tennin challenged the constitutionality of the 2003 co-payment statute, arguing that the statute violated her right to counsel under the Minnesota and United States Constitutions. On September 2, 2003, the district court found Minn. Stat. § 611.17, subd. 1(c) (Supp. 2003), unconstitutional. In arriving at its conclusion that the statute is unconstitutional, the court relied on State v. Cunningham, a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that upheld Minn. Stat. § 611.17 (2002), which, unlike the amended statute, contained language allowing for judicial waiver of a co-payment. State v. Cunningham, 663 N.W.2d 7 (Minn. App. 2003). In Cunningham, the court of appeals instructed district courts to exercise their discretion to waive co-payments in a manner consistent with the United States Supreme Court decision in Fuller v. Oregon and the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Cunningham, 663 N.W.2d at 11; Fuller v. Oregon, 417 U.S. 40, 94 S.Ct. 2116 (1974); U.S. Const. amend. VI.

Applying the reasoning of Cunningham to the present version of section 611.17, the district court in the instant case found that "[t]he very [waiver] language in which the Court of Appeals predicated its finding that the previous version of the statute was constitutional is completely absent in the 2003 version of [Minn. Stat.] § 611.17." Further, the court noted that not only did the legislature eliminate the court's authority to waive the co-payment, it also chose to levy a flat co-payment against all public defender clients without distinguishing between their financial circumstances.

Based on this ruling, the district court enjoined further collection of co-payments and certified the issue for appellate review pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.03. The state, joined by amici Minnesota State legislators,*fn1 challenges the district court's findings and order that section 611.17 is unconstitutional. On September 24, 2003, we granted accelerated review.

"A certified question 'should be carefully and precisely framed so as to present distinctly and clearly the question of law involved.'" State v. Larivee, 656 N.W.2d 226, 228 (Minn. 2003) (quoting Thompson v. State, 284 Minn. 274, 277, 170 N.W.2d 101, 103 (1969)). Otherwise, the certified-question procedure runs the risk of seeking an impermissible advisory opinion. Jacka v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 580 N.W.2d 27, 30 (Minn. 1998). While the district court did not precisely frame the certified question, the court's order and memorandum make clear that the question of law presented may fairly be stated as follows:

Does Minn. Stat. § 611.17, subd. 1(c), as amended, violate the right to counsel under the United States and Minnesota Constitutions?

A certified question is a question of law which we review de novo. B.M.B. v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 664 N.W.2d 817, 821 (Minn. 2003). The constitutionality and the construction of a statute are also reviewed de novo. State v. Grossman, 636 N.W.2d 545, 548 (Minn. 2001); State v. Colvin, 645 N.W.2d 449, 452 (Minn. 2002).

Central to the issue raised in this case is the express statutory language set forth in section 611.17. The 2003 statute establishes co-payment fees to be paid by indigents who receive public defender ...


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