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State v. Watkins

Supreme Court of Minnesota

December 4, 2013

State of Minnesota, Appellant/Cross-Respondent,
v.
George Cornelius Watkins, Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts.

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant/cross-respondent.

Cathryn Middlebrook, Interim Chief Appellate Public Defender, Steven P. Russett, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent/cross-appellant.

SYLLABUS

1. The failure to instruct the jury on an element of the charged offense is subject to review as a trial error and not a structural error.

2. When a district court's jury instructions omit an element of the charged offense, a reviewing court must conduct a thorough examination of the record to determine whether the omission was prejudicial, considering all relevant factors, including whether the defendant contested the omitted element and submitted evidence to support a contrary finding, whether the State submitted overwhelming evidence to prove the omitted element, and whether the jury's verdict nonetheless encompassed a finding on the omitted element.

Affirmed.

OPINION

DIETZEN, Justice.

Hennepin County District Court issued a domestic abuse no-contact order (DANCO) that prohibited respondent George Cornelius Watkins from having contact with his girlfriend. After Watkins allegedly contacted his girlfriend on two separate occasions, the State charged him pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 629.75, subd. 2(d)(1) (2012), with felony violations of the DANCO. A Hennepin County jury found Watkins guilty as charged. The district court entered judgment of conviction, imposed an aggregate sentence of 44 months and a day in prison, and issued a 5-year DANCO. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding as a matter of law that Watkins' substantial rights were affected by the district court's failure to instruct the jury on the "knowingly" element of the charged offense. State v. Watkins, 820 N.W.2d 264, 269 (Minn.App. 2012). We conclude that the court of appeals misconstrued existing case law when it held that, as a matter of law, the failure to instruct on an element of the charged offense affects a defendant's substantial rights. Based upon our review of the record, we conclude that the failure to instruct on the "knowingly" element of the charged offense was trial error that affected Watkins' substantial rights. We therefore affirm the result reached by the court of appeals, though on different grounds.

Watkins and his girlfriend met in 2005 and had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship. As a result of an October 2010 incident, Watkins was charged by complaint with several offenses, including felony domestic assault in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.2242, subd. 4 (2012). At the first appearance, the district court set bail and conditions of release, including that Watkins have no contact with his girlfriend. The district court issued, without objection, a DANCO under Minn. Stat. § 629.75 (2012). The DANCO identified the protected person, but misspelled her last name by one letter and incorrectly listed her date of birth. The DANCO required that Watkins "have no contact directly, indirectly or through others, in person, by telephone, in writing, electronically or by any other means with the protected person(s) named above."

Watkins subsequently contacted his girlfriend on two occasions. On October 30, 2010, Watkins telephoned his girlfriend from jail and the two had a conversation that jail personnel recorded. Additionally, sometime between February 7 and February 14, 2011, Watkins sent a Valentine's Day card to his girlfriend's home. Watkins was subsequently charged by complaint with two counts of felony violation of a DANCO, Minn. Stat. § 629.75, subd. 2(d)(1). Watkins pleaded not guilty, and the case proceeded to trial.

At trial, the State presented evidence consistent with the facts described above. Watkins admitted that he had received a copy of the DANCO and later contacted his girlfriend on the dates alleged in the complaint. Watkins testified, however, that he did not know his actions had violated the DANCO. Specifically, Watkins stated that he did not know he was contacting the protected person named in the DANCO because the last name and date of birth of the protected person were not the same last name and same date of birth of his girlfriend. Watkins also testified that he sent the card to his girlfriend in response to a letter that she sent to him, but denied that the DANCO prevented him from contacting her if she first contacted him.

After closing arguments, the district court instructed the jury, in part, as follows:

The statutes of Minnesota provide that whoever violates a domestic abuse no-contact order granted pursuant to the Domestic Abuse Act or similar law of another state and knows of the existence of the order is guilty of a crime.
The elements of violation of a domestic abuse no-contact order are, first, there was an existing court domestic abuse no-contact order.
Second, the defendant violated a term or condition of the order.
Third, the defendant knew of the existence of the order.
Fourth, the defendant's act took place on or about October 30, 2010, ...

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