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Dereje v. State

Supreme Court of Minnesota

October 9, 2013

Tsige Abebaw Dereje, Respondent,
State of Minnesota, Appellant.

David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Benjamin J. Butler, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda M. Freyer, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.


1. A stipulated-facts trial under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, is not valid when the determination of guilt is dependent on stipulated evidence containing conflicting versions of events.

2. It was not error for the parties to conduct a bench trial consistent with Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 2, notwithstanding the fact that the parties characterized it as a stipulated-facts trial under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3.

3. Ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims fail when counsel demonstrates reasonable strategic calculation throughout the representation and secures a favorable outcome for his client in the face of multiple felony charges and considerable evidence of guilt.


ANDERSON, Justice.

Respondent Tsige Abebaw Dereje was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree, Minn. Stat. § 609.3451, subd. 1(1) (2012), stemming from an incident in which he groped the victim, S.J., while she was a passenger in his taxi. Dereje and the prosecutor agreed to conduct a trial on stipulated facts pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, and Dereje waived all trial rights. The parties jointly submitted the complaint and police reports containing both Dereje's and the victim's versions of events to the district court, which found Dereje guilty. On postconviction review, Dereje now argues that he is entitled to a new trial because (1) the procedure used to convict him was not a trial on stipulated facts pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3; and (2) he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Because we conclude that the procedures used to convict him complied with the requirements of Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 2, and that he received effective assistance of counsel, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand to the district court to reinstate Dereje's judgment of conviction and sentence.

On March 30, 2008, Dereje, a cab driver, picked up S.J. from a bus shelter at the intersection of Broadway Avenue and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. S.J. asked Dereje to drive her to St. Paul, and he agreed. He instead drove her to his apartment, got out of the car, and left her in the cab parked outside. After he left, S.J. got out of the cab, found someone to assist her in calling 911, reported that she had been sexually assaulted and was hiding from her attacker, and met police at the scene when they arrived. Shortly thereafter, police found Dereje driving up and down the street in a white van, and S.J. identified him as her attacker. Beyond these facts, the accounts of Dereje and S.J. share little in common.

Dereje claimed that, after buying groceries at a nearby supermarket, he saw S.J. at a bus shelter and pulled his taxi up to her location after she made eye contact with him. S.J. told him that she needed a ride to St. Paul. Dereje agreed, but told her that he would need to stop at his apartment on the way to drop off the groceries with his wife, assuring S.J. that he would not charge her for that portion of the ride. While he was inside his apartment, S.J. disappeared. Thinking she intended to skip out on the fare, Dereje went looking for her in his personal vehicle. He insisted that he had no sexual contact with S.J., and that the condoms found in his pocket were intended for sexual relations with his wife.

S.J.'s account, which was accepted by the district court, was very different. According to S.J., she asked Dereje to give her a ride to downtown Minneapolis so she could take a bus to downtown St. Paul. Once the car was underway, however, Dereje told S.J. that the ride would be free and he would give her $150 if she would spend the night with him. He also kissed her hand and reached into the back seat to rub her vaginal area over her clothes, despite repeated demands that he stop and let her out of the car. S.J. called 911 several times from the back of the cab—which was confirmed by phone records—but had trouble maintaining a connection because her phone's battery kept falling out. After stopping outside his apartment, Dereje told S.J. he was going to get money and his personal minivan, and left her locked in the back seat of the cab. She was able to escape, contact police, and meet them when they arrived at the scene. The officers observed that S.J. was shaking and crying when they arrived.

On April 1, 2008, Dereje was charged with criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree under Minn. Stat. § 609.345, subd. 1(c) (2012)—a felony—and criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree under Minn. Stat. § 609.3451, subd. 1(1), which is a gross misdemeanor. On September 25, 2008, Dereje made a number of calls to S.J., during which he asked her to drop the charges against him and threatened to kill himself if she refused. Shortly thereafter, Dereje was found incompetent to proceed to trial, and was committed. On March 12, 2009, he was deemed competent to stand trial, and the charges against him, including felony witness tampering stemming from his calls to S.J., were reinstated.

At the March 12 hearing, Dereje, with the help of an Amharic interpreter, pleaded guilty to felony witness tampering and also waived his trial rights regarding the sexual conduct charges. The district court accepted his waiver of trial rights for all of the charges. By agreement, the parties submitted the complaint and police reports to the court for a stipulated-facts trial pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3. The court issued an order accepting S.J.'s version of events and finding Dereje guilty of criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree. The State then dropped the fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct charge.

The district court agreed to stay imposition of the witness-tampering sentence for 3 years, placed Dereje on probation, and prohibited any contact with S.J. It sentenced him to 360 days on the sexual conduct charge, stayed for 2 years, and required him to register as a sex offender. While the court did not explain the reasoning for its 360-day sentence, Dereje's counsel informed the court prior to sentencing that any sentence of 365 days or more would expose Dereje to deportation, and the record does not suggest any other reason for the court to impose a sentence just short of 1 year.

Although Dereje did not file a direct appeal on either charge, he filed a petition for postconviction relief on January 31, 2011. His petition alleged that (1) the procedure used was not a valid stipulated-facts trial under the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure; (2) he received ineffective assistance of counsel; and (3) his waiver of trial rights was invalid. The district court denied Dereje's petition by order dated May 6, 2011.

Dereje appealed the district court's denial of his petition, again arguing that the procedure used was not a valid trial on stipulated facts and that his counsel was ineffective. However, he did not then, and does not now, contest the validity of his waiver of trial rights. The court of appeals held that a trial based on a body of evidence including disputed facts was not a stipulated-facts trial under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, but that the error was harmless because Dereje's waiver of trial rights converted the proceeding into a valid bench trial based on stipulated evidence. Dereje v. State, 812 N.W.2d 205, 209-11 (Minn.App. 2012). But, it also held that Dereje received ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to subject the prosecution's case to meaningful adversarial testing, which was structural error. Id. at 211. It therefore reversed his conviction for fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, and remanded for a new trial. Id. at 212.

The State now appeals, arguing that there was a valid trial on stipulated facts, and that Dereje received effective assistance of counsel.


We first examine whether the district court conducted a valid trial on stipulated facts under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3. We conclude that it did not.

The interpretation of the rules of criminal procedure is a question of law that we review de novo. Ford v. State, 690 N.W.2d 706, 712 (Minn. 2005). "We interpret court rules in accordance with the rules of grammar and give words and phrases their common and approved usage." State v. Hohenwald, 815 N.W.2d 823, 829 (Minn. 2012). "When considering the plain and ordinary meaning of words or phrases, we have considered dictionary definitions." State v. Heiges, 806 N.W.2d 1, 15 (Minn. 2011). Additionally, when different words are used in the same context, we assume that the words have different meanings. See League of Women Voters Minn. v. Ritchie, 819 N.W.2d 636, 685 n.29 (Minn. 2012) (Anderson, Paul H., J., dissenting). Keeping these principles in mind, we consider the language of Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3.

Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 26.01, subdivision 3(a), states:

The defendant and the prosecutor may agree that a determination of defendant's guilt . . . may be submitted to and tried by the court based on stipulated facts. Before proceeding, the defendant must acknowledge and personally waive the rights to:
(1)testify at trial;
(2)have the prosecution witnesses testify in open court in the defendant's presence;
(3)question those prosecution witnesses; and
(4)require any favorable witnesses to testify for the defense in court.

The State argues that Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 3, permits a defendant to stipulate to a body of evidence containing contrary versions of events, and that such a stipulation does not require agreement as to the accuracy of the facts reported, but merely to the fact that the evidence presented was reported. This interpretation is not consistent with the plain language of the rule. A "stipulation" is defined as "[a] voluntary agreement between opposing parties concerning some relevant point; esp., an agreement relating to a proceeding, made by attorneys representing adverse parties to the proceeding." Black's Law Dictionary 1550 (9th ed. 2009). A "fact" is "[s]omething that actually exists; . . . [a]n actual or alleged event or circumstance." Id. at 669. A stipulated fact is thus agreement between opposing parties regarding the actual event or circumstance. While the parties here agreed on ...

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