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State v. Smith

February 12, 2004



The trial court's jury instruction, which was unobjected to at trial and which defined the concept of reasonable doubt to exclude "speculation," did not confuse, mislead, or misstate the law and therefore did not constitute plain error.


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

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


Appellant, State of Minnesota, appeals from the court of appeals decision, which granted Eric Smith, defendant and respondent, a new trial because the trial court's jury instructions diluted the reasonable doubt standard. We reverse.

On July 14, 2001, two Minneapolis police officers patrolling in a marked squad car spotted Smith driving a blue Chevrolet Blazer bearing the license plate number of a vehicle that had been reported to the Minneapolis Police Department as stolen. The officers testified that they never lost sight of the vehicle and pursued the vehicle until it pulled over to the side of the street. The police stopped behind the alleged stolen vehicle with emergency lights activated. After Smith parked the Blazer, the officers witnessed Smith exit the vehicle from the driver's door and approach the police car. The officers apprehended Smith shortly thereafter and later testified that Smith was the driver and lone occupant of the vehicle.

At trial, Smith's version of the events differed substantially from the account given by the police officers. Smith testified that while sitting on his aunt's front porch he witnessed a blue Chevrolet Blazer speed up the street and park in front of his aunt's house. The vehicle's two occupants quickly exited the vehicle and fled in opposite directions. Smith walked over to the vehicle and looked inside where he noticed that the plastic casing surrounding the steering column had been chipped away. Suspicious that the vehicle was stolen, Smith decided that he should contact the police department. At that moment, a police squad car came to a stop behind the stolen vehicle. Smith approached the police officers to discuss the events he had witnessed moments earlier. After brief questioning by the police, Smith was arrested and charged with theft of a motor vehicle under Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(17) (2000).*fn1

On September 26, 2001, a jury convicted Smith of both crimes. Smith appealed the convictions on five separate grounds: 1) that the trial court's jury instruction on reasonable doubt, which departed from the model jury instruction, diluted the state's burden of proof; 2) that the trial court should have suppressed evidence as a discovery sanction; 3) that the state committed a Brady violation; 4) that a juror should have been removed for cause; and 5) that the trial court erred in sentencing Smith as a career offender. State v. Smith, 655 N.W.2d 347, 351-52 (Minn. App. 2003). Of the five issues raised on appeal, the court of appeals rejected 2) through 5) listed above, but reversed and remanded on the first issue. Id. at 353-56. The court of appeals concluded that the trial court's jury instruction diluted the reasonable doubt standard and, therefore, granted Smith a new trial. The state asks this court to reverse the court of appeals' decision and reinstate the convictions of auto theft and receiving stolen property.

The reasonable doubt standard is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. "The standard provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence—that bedrock axiomatic and elementary principle whose enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 363 (1970) (internal quotations omitted). Although the United States Constitution requires that a defendant's guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, trial courts are not bound to use any particular form of words to define the government's burden of proof as long as, taken as a whole, the concept of reasonable doubt is correctly conveyed to the jury. Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994). The United States Supreme Court has held that the proper inquiry into the reasonable doubt jury instruction asks if the jury was reasonably likely to apply the instruction in an unconstitutional manner, not whether the jury could have applied the instruction in an unconstitutional manner. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72 n.4 (1991).

Minnesota courts have adopted a similar approach to analyzing jury instructions and, in particular, the reasonable doubt jury instruction. State v. Moorman, 505 N.W.2d 593, 604-05 n.6 (Minn. 1993) (citing Estelle, 502 U.S. at 69 n.4). Minnesota trial courts are afforded broad discretion and considerable latitude in choosing the language of jury instructions. Hilligoss v. Cargill Inc., 649 N.W.2d 142, 147 (Minn. 2002); State v. Gray, 456 N.W.2d 251, 258 (Minn. 1990). Instructions must be viewed in their entirety to determine whether they fairly and adequately explain the law of the case. State v. Flores, 418 N.W.2d 150, 155 (Minn. 1988). We will review the unobjected to jury instructions for plain error. State v. Griller, 583 N.W.2d 736, 740 (Minn. 1998).

Here, the trial court first instructed on the presumption of innocence. It then supplied the jury with a description of the reasonable doubt standard that departed, in part, from the exact wording of the reasonable doubt instruction provided in the Criminal Jury Instruction Guide 3.03, an articulation of the reasonable doubt standard that is recognized by Minnesota courts. 10 Minn. Dist. Judges Ass'n, Minnesota Practice—Jury Instruction Guides, Criminal, CRIMJIG 3.03 (4th ed. 1999) (hereinafter CRIMJIG); State v. Sessions, 621 N.W.2d 751 (Minn. 2001). The standard CRIMJIG 3.03 from which the trial court departed provides:

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is such proof as ordinarily prudent men and women would act upon in their most important affairs. A reasonable doubt is a doubt based upon reason and common sense. It does not mean a fanciful or capricious doubt, nor does it mean beyond all possibility of doubt.

Although courts may favor the use of CRIMJIGs, their use is not mandatory. Flores, 418 N.W.2d at 156 (stating that although it may have been preferable for the trial court to use the words of a CRIMJIG, the instruction fairly and adequately explained the law and was not error). Here, ...

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