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State v. Yeazizw

March 23, 2004


Hennepin County District Court File No. 01079181

Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Halbrooks, Judge

Affirmed; motion granted


Appellant Mebrat Belay Yeazizw challenges her convictions of disorderly conduct and obstructing legal process arguing that (1) the obstructing-legal-process statute is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad; (2) the district court abused its discretion in failing to instruct the jury on certain issues; (3) the district court abused its discretion in failing to grant appellant probable-cause and Rasmussen hearings; (4) the lack of an independent investigation by police at the scene denied appellant a right to a fair trial; (5) the denial of adequate discovery denied her the chance to obtain a discriminatory-enforcement hearing; (6) the jury verdicts were legally and logically inconsistent; and (7) there was insufficient evidence to support both convictions. We affirm.


On September 22, 2001, Minneapolis Police Officer Linda Chaplin was working her off-duty job at a Walgreens in Minneapolis. She was wearing her Minneapolis Police Department uniform that evening. Chaplin testified that when working a part-time job in uniform her first responsibility is to the Minneapolis Police Department and that she is subject to all the rules and regulations she would normally be subject to when working as a police officer.

The Walgreens has signs in its parking lot indicating that only Walgreens' customers may park in its lot. Some drivers violate this regulation by parking in the Walgreens' parking lot while shopping at the nearby Somali Mall. At approximately 8:00 p.m., a Walgreens manager requested that a privately employed tow-truck driver "boot" the parked vehicles in its lot that were in violation of the signs. The tow-truck driver asked Chaplin to monitor the situation while he put the "boots" on the vehicles.

Chaplin testified that she observed appellant, an East African black woman, come out of the Somali Mall and walk toward a vehicle that was parked in the back row of the Walgreens' parking lot. Chaplin observed appellant peel off a sticker from her driver's window and remove a piece of paper from beneath her windshield wiper, both of which the tow-truck driver had placed on the vehicle in order to notify appellant that her vehicle had an immobilization device on its wheel. Chaplin contends appellant got into her vehicle, rolled down her window, and yelled at the tow-truck driver that he couldn't do this. Testimony differs about the argument and subsequent events. Chaplin claims that appellant then got out of her vehicle, continuing to yell. The tow-truck driver asserts that he tried to explain to appellant that she should not move her vehicle, but realized that there likely had been miscommunication because of appellant's limited English-speaking skills. Chaplin contends that she and the tow-truck driver then approached appellant and explained the situation to her.

Appellant got back into her vehicle, started it, backed up out of her parking space, and drove toward the parking lot's exit. Appellant was able to drive her vehicle with the boot attached because, according to the tow-truck driver, the boot and key were old, and therefore he was not able to fully tighten it. Chaplin radioed dispatch that there was a vehicle leaving the lot with a boot attached to its wheel. Chaplin contends that even though appellant was driving very slowly, Chaplin was concerned for the people standing in appellant's path. Two witnesses stated that they never felt appellant's driving posed any risk to bystanders.

Chaplin stated that she ran after the car, opened the driver's door, and ordered appellant to stop the vehicle. Appellant claims that Chaplin called her an "Arabic terrorist," but Chaplin denies ever doing so. Chaplin testified that appellant refused to turn off her vehicle and instead struck Chaplin in the head and chest. Chaplin reached in the vehicle, put the car in park, turned off the ignition, and told appellant that she was under arrest. When Chaplin ordered appellant out of the vehicle, she refused to cooperate. Chaplin then physically tried to extract appellant. After she failed, Chaplin radioed dispatch again. Chaplin then took appellant by the hair and pushed her head down into her lap and held her there until backup arrived. Chaplin denies ever punching or striking appellant. One witness testified that Chaplin reached in and grabbed appellant by the hair but that appellant never punched, slapped, or hit Chaplin.

Two additional officers arrived, including Officer John Hawes. After observing Chaplin struggling with appellant, he approached and tried to help. When his initial technique did not work, he took out his mace and sprayed it at appellant. The officers were then able to remove appellant from the vehicle. Meanwhile, a crowd of 30-40 people had gathered to watch. The officers chose not to interview any of them, stating that they regarded the crowd as hostile because the people were yelling for the officers to stop and to let appellant go. Chaplin explained that whether or not police take down names of witnesses depends on the crime charged, and that while an officer might take names for assault, the officer would not for disorderly conduct. Chaplin did, however, take down the names of the tow-truck drivers.

Appellant was formally charged with fourth-degree assault on a police officer under Minn. Stat. § 609.2231, subd. 1 (2000), obstructing legal process under Minn. Stat. § 609.50, subds. 1, 2(2) (2000), disorderly conduct under Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1 (2000), and failure to obey a police officer under Minneapolis, Minn., Code of Ordinances § 466.130 (2000). Throughout the pretrial period, appellant filed several discovery requests and several motions. She moved for a probable-cause hearing, a discriminatory-enforcement-of-the-law hearing, and for dismissal on constitutional grounds, including that the obstructing-legal-process and disorderly conduct statutes are unconstitutional. All of the motions were subsequently denied except for appellant's motion to dismiss the failure to obey a police officer charge, which was granted.

On November 13, 2002, appellant renewed her motions for a Rasmussen hearing, a probable-cause hearing, dismissal for lack of probable cause, and made various other pretrial motions. The district court denied the motions and appellant's jury trial began. During the jury's deliberations, the jury questioned whether a person must engage in brawling or fighting to be guilty of disorderly conduct. The district court, with both attorneys' agreement, advised the jury to re-read the jury instructions. Later that day, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict for gross misdemeanor obstruction of legal process (with force) and a not-guilty verdict for fourth-degree assault on a police officer. Appellant was convicted of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor obstructing legal process. Appellant moved the district court to acquit, vacate the judgment and/or for a new trial. All motions were denied and appellant was later sentenced. This appeal follows.



Appellant argues that the statute underlying her obstruction-of-legal-process conviction is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad on its face. The statute prohibits conduct that "obstructs, resists, or interferes with a peace officer while the officer is engaged in the performance of official duties." Minn. Stat. § 609.50, subd. 1(2) (2000). The constitutionality of a statute presents a question of law, which we review de novo. State v. Wright, 588 N.W.2d 166, 168 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Feb. 24, 1999).

Statutes may be void for vagueness under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7, of the Minnesota Constitution. State v. Newstrom, 371 N.W.2d 525, 528 (Minn. 1985). To satisfy the requirements of due process, a statute must "define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." Id. (quoting Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357, 103 S. Ct. 1855, 1858 (1983)). "A statute is overbroad on its face if it prohibits constitutionally protected activity, in addition to activity that may be prohibited without offending constitutional rights." State v. Machholz, 574 N.W.2d 415, 419 (Minn. 1998).

Appellant asserts that under the statute there is no way someone of ordinary intelligence can know if they are interfering with a peace officer while he or she is engaged in official duties. More specifically, appellant claims that the phrase "official duties" evokes constitutional doubts, therefore making the statute vague. Appellant also asserts that the subsection leaves the police with "unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them." See Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 465, 107 S. Ct. 2502, 2511 (1987).

The Minnesota Supreme Court has determined that Minn. Stat. § 609.50, subd. 1(2), is not facially vague. State v. Krawsky, 426 N.W.2d 875, 879 (Minn. 1988); see also State v. Tomlin, 622 N.W.2d 546, 548 (Minn. 2001) (noting that the Krawsky court "held that section 609.50 was not facially... vague"). The Krawsky court stated that "[p]ersons of common intelligence need not guess at whether their conduct violates the statute" and the statute does not "encourage arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement by the police." Krawsky, 426 N.W.2d at 878. Further, the Krawsky court emphasized that "given the wide variety of circumstances in which the type of conduct section 609.50 legitimately seeks to proscribe can occur, it seems unlikely that a substantially more precise standard could be formulated which would not risk nullification in practice because of easy evasion." Id. at 878-79. While the statute was worded differently at the time Krawsky was decided, the specific provision at issue in Krawsky is the same provision that has now been incorporated into subdivision 1(2). Therefore, the court impliedly determined the phrase "official duties" is not unconstitutionally vague.

Appellant also argues that "the overbreadth doctrine permits the facial invalidation of laws that inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights if the impermissible applications of the law are substantial when judged in relation to the statute's plainly legitimate sweep." See Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 52, 119 S. Ct. 1849, 1857 (1999) (quotation omitted).

Appellant asserts that her screams and physical movements were merely a reaction to Chaplin's acts of grabbing her and pulling her hair and are privileged under the First Amendment. Appellant argues that because the statute sweeps up this type of ...

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