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State v. Nelson

Supreme Court of Minnesota

February 12, 2014

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Larry Allen Nelson, Appellant.

Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Mark A. Ostrem, Olmsted County Attorney, James P. Spencer, Assistant Olmsted County Attorney, Rochester, Minnesota, for respondent.

Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Sharon E. Jacks, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

SYLLABUS

1. Minnesota Statutes § 609.375, subd. 1 (2012), is ambiguous because it is susceptible to at least three reasonable interpretations.

2. To convict a person under Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person knowingly omitted and failed to provide both care and support to a spouse or child.

3. The term "care" in Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1, refers to those nonmonetary legal obligations that require watchful oversight, attentive assistance, or supervision.

4. The term "support" in Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1, refers to a legal obligation to provide monetary assistance or other material necessities.

5. Because the State did not present any evidence that the appellant knowingly omitted and failed to provide care to his children, the evidence was insufficient to support appellant's felony conviction under Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subds. 1, 2a(1) (2012).

OPINION

STRAS, Justice.

Appellant Larry Allen Nelson challenges his felony conviction under Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subds. 1, 2a(1) (2012), which criminalizes a person's omission and failure "to provide care and support" to a spouse or child when legally obligated to do so. Nelson argues that the record contains insufficient evidence to support his conviction because the State did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he omitted and failed to provide care to his children. Because we conclude that Minn. Stat. § 609.375 (2012) ("the care-and-support statute") required the State to prove that Nelson omitted and failed to provide both care and support to his children, we reverse Nelson's conviction.

I.

Nelson and his ex-wife have two adult children. Beginning in 1993, when the children were minors, the district court ordered Nelson to pay child support. Nelson stopped making child-support payments sometime in 1997. Since then, Olmsted County and Nelson's ex-wife have repeatedly attempted to recover child support from Nelson, whom the court has held in civil contempt on multiple occasions due to his refusal to pay child support. As of April 2008, Nelson owed $83, 470.27 in child support.

The State charged Nelson by complaint in August 2008 with felony-level failure to provide care and support to his children for more than 180 days, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subds. 1, 2a(1). The complaint alleged that, "[b]eginning before April 12, 2007 and continuing through April 30, 2008 . . . Nelson was legally obligated to provide care and support to his minor children, and knowingly omitted and failed [to do so] without lawful excuse." During the period covered by the complaint, Nelson was obligated to pay a total of $378 per month, which included his child-support obligation and a payment to defray his arrears. During that period, however, Nelson made only one involuntary payment of $41.10.

Before trial, Nelson moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of probable cause. Nelson argued that the absence of any facts in the complaint alleging that he had omitted and failed to provide both care and support to his children required dismissal of the complaint. The State opposed Nelson's motion, arguing that a person violates the care-and-support statute if he or she omits and fails to provide either care or support (or both) to a spouse or child. The district court agreed with the State and denied Nelson's motion.

The State then filed a motion in limine to prohibit Nelson from "making any claim, eliciting or attempting to elicit testimony, or making [any] argument concerning the defendant's alleged non-monetary care of [his] children as a defense to the current action." The district court granted the State's motion. In response, Nelson waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to a trial on stipulated facts to expedite review of the court's pretrial rulings. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 4. Following a bench trial on stipulated facts, the court found:

1. That beginning before April 12, 2007 and continuing through April 30, 2008, Mr. Nelson was legally obligated to provide care and support to his minor children.
2. That during said time frame, Mr. Nelson knowingly omitted and failed without lawful excuse to pay $315 per month as he had been ordered to do by District Court Order dated September 27, 2006.
3. That said failure to pay child support continued for a period in excess of one hundred and eighty (180) days, and Mr. Nelson is in arrears in Court-Ordered child support in an amount equal to or greater than nine (9) times his total monthly support obligation.
4. That Mr. Nelson's nonsupport of his children occurred in Olmsted County, Minnesota.

Based on those facts, the court convicted Nelson of a felony violation of the care-and-support statute.[1] The court stayed imposition of Nelson's sentence and placed him on supervised probation for 2 years.

The court of appeals affirmed Nelson's conviction. State v. Nelson, 823 N.W.2d 908 (Minn.App. 2012). The court concluded that the phrase "care and support" in Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1, "refers exclusively to a person's financial obligations to a spouse or child." Nelson, 823 N.W.2d at 912. The court of appeals also concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded Nelson's evidence that he had provided nonmonetary care to his children. Id. at 913. We granted Nelson's petition for further review.

II.

The question presented by this case is whether Nelson's omission and failure to pay court-ordered child support is sufficient, standing alone, to support his conviction of knowingly omitting and failing "to provide care and support" for his children. See Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1. Whether Nelson's conduct violated the care-and-support statute presents a question of statutory interpretation that we review de novo. See State v. Hayes, 826 N.W.2d 799, 803 (Minn. 2013). When interpreting a statute, "we give words and phrases their plain and ordinary meaning." Premier Bank v. Becker Dev., LLC, 785 N.W.2d 753, 759 (Minn. 2010) (citing Minn. Stat. § 645.08 (2012)). If a statute has more than one reasonable interpretation, then it is ambiguous and we may resort to the canons of statutory construction to determine its meaning. See Hayes, 826 N.W.2d at 804. On the other hand, if a statute is susceptible to only one reasonable interpretation, "then we must apply the statute's plain meaning." Larson v. State, 790 N.W.2d 700, 703 (Minn. 2010).

A.

We begin our analysis with the text of the care-and-support statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.375, which states in relevant part as follows:

Subdivision 1. Crime defined. Whoever is legally obligated to provide care and support to a spouse or child, whether or not the child's custody has been granted to another, and knowingly omits and fails to do so is guilty of a misdemeanor . . . .

Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subd. 1. Both parties agree that the phrase "care and support" describes two independent legal obligations. The parties disagree, however, about whether the care-and-support statute requires the State to prove a knowing omission and failure to provide both care and support or only a knowing omission and failure to provide either care or support.

Nelson would define the term "care" as nonmonetary assistance and the term "support" as monetary assistance. The State does not advance an alternative definition of either term, relying instead on its argument that it must prove only the omission and failure to provide one or the other to obtain a conviction under the care-and-support statute. Because the care-and-support statute does not define either term, we give each term its plain and ordinary meaning. See Abrahamson v. St. Louis Cnty. Sch. Dist., 819 N.W.2d 129, 133 (Minn. 2012) (citing Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (2012)).

The term "care" means "[w]atchful oversight; charge or supervision . . . [or] [a]ttentive assistance or treatment to those in need." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 281 (5th ed. 2011); see also Webster's Third New International Dictionary 338 (1976) (defining "care" as "responsibility for or attention to safety and well-being"); Black's Law Dictionary 225 (8th ed. 2004) (defining "care" in family-law context as "[t]he provision of physical or psychological comfort to another, esp. an ailing spouse, child, or parent").[2] The plain and ordinary meaning of the term "care" mirrors the types of nonmonetary legal obligations that a court can impose on a parent, including court-ordered parenting time, custody, and visitation. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(f) (2012) (defining custody determination to mean "court orders and instructions providing for the custody of a child, including parenting time"). For example, courts frequently make determinations regarding the physical or joint physical custody of a child that establish "the routine daily care and control and the residence of the child." Id., subd. 3(c), (d) (2012) (emphasis added); see also Minn. Stat. § 518.1751, subd. 1b(b) (2012) (defining a "a parenting time dispute" to include "a claim by a parent that the other parent is not spending time with a child"). Even parents who are not subject to a specific court order to provide care to their children have a legal obligation to supervise and attend to their children. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 609.378 (2012) (criminalizing neglect of a child). The term "care" in the care-and-support statute, therefore, reasonably refers to those nonmonetary legal obligations that require watchful oversight, attentive assistance, or supervision of a spouse or child.

In contrast, the term "support" means "[t]he provision of money or the necessities of life: child support." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1751 (5th ed. 2011); see also Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2297 (1976) (defining "support" as "a means of livelihood, sustenance, or existence"); Black's Law Dictionary 1480-81 (8th ed. 2004) (defining "support" in part as "[o]ne or more monetary payments to a current or former family member for the purpose of helping the recipient maintain an acceptable standard of living"). Like the term "care, " the term "support" has a plain and ordinary meaning that is consistent with the types of legal obligations that arise under Minnesota law. The most familiar example is court-ordered child support, which "includes the dollar amount ordered for a child's housing, food, clothing, transportation, and education costs, and other expenses relating to the child's care." Minn. Stat. § 518A.26, subd. 4 (2012). Cf. Minn. Stat. § 518C.101(u) (2012) (defining "support order" in part to mean an "order . . . for the benefit of a child, spouse, or former spouse, which provides for monetary support, health care, arrearages, or reimbursement"). In the context of the care-and-support statute, therefore, the term "support" reasonably refers to a legal obligation to provide monetary assistance or other material necessities to a spouse or child.

Justice Dietzen's dissent adopts a different approach to the care-and-support statute. Rather than ascribing independent meaning to the terms "care" and "support, " he would conclude that "care and support" is a term of art or a legal doublet that refers exclusively to "a person's obligation to pay court-ordered child or spousal support." Thus, for slightly different reasons, Justice Dietzen reaches the same conclusion as the court of appeals, which held that the phrase "care and support" refers exclusively to "a person's financial obligations" to a spouse or child. Nelson, 823 N.W.2d at 912.

While Justice Dietzen's interpretation of the care-and-support statute is reasonable, it suffers from several flaws, the most serious of which is that it renders the term "care" superfluous in the statute. Under our interpretation and that adopted by Justice Lillehaug, the term "support, " standing alone, refers to the obligation to provide monetary assistance or other material necessities. Thus, Justice Dietzen's interpretation, which ascribes the same meaning to the phrase "care and support, " necessarily means that the word "care" does no work at all in his interpretation, which violates the canon against surplusage in the interpretation of a statute.[3] See Baker v. Ploetz, 616 N.W.2d 263, 269 (Minn. 2000) (describing the canon).

Justice Dietzen provides two explanations for why the canon against surplusage does not apply in the context of the care-and-support statute, but neither is persuasive. Justice Dietzen's first explanation is that the phrase "care and support" is a legal term of art that refers exclusively to financial support. In a vacuum and without reference to the care-and-support statute, Justice Dietzen's explanation has merit. But in the context of the care-and-support statute itself, it falls apart. If "care and support" were a legal term of art, as Justice Dietzen asserts, then the Legislature would have used that phrase consistently to refer to a person's financial obligations to a spouse or child. Yet the phrase "care and support" appears only in subdivisions 1 and 8 of section 609.375. Other subdivisions of the care-and-support statute variously use phrases such as "child support or maintenance payments, " Minn. Stat. § 609.375, subds. 2(2) & 2a(2); "monthly support and maintenance payments, " id., subds. 2(2) & 2a(2); "support or maintenance, " id., subd. 2b; "child support, " id., subd. 7; or simply "support, " id., subd. 5, to refer to a person's financial obligations to a spouse or child. Generally, "when different words are used in the same context, we assume that the words have different meanings." Dereje v. State, 837 N.W.2d 714, 720 (Minn. 2013); see also Transp. Leasing Corp. v. State, 294 Minn. 134, 137, 199 N.W.2d 817, 819 (1972) ("Distinctions of language in the same context must be presumed intentional and must be applied consistent with that intent."). Thus, at best, Justice Dietzen's term-of-art explanation only identifies an additional ambiguity in the care-and-support statute based on the varying phrases used by the Legislature to refer to a person's financial obligations to a spouse or child.

Justice Dietzen alternatively explains that "care and support" is a legal doublet, meaning that the canon against surplusage is inapplicable. However, like the term-of-art explanation, the legal-doublet explanation does not withstand scrutiny. Specifically, the legal-doublet explanation begs the underlying question of whether the term "care" in the care-and-support statute is meaningless. But we can only declare a phrase to be a legal doublet once we have determined that a word within that phrase is meaningless. See Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage 294-97 (3d ed. 2011) (entry for "Doublets, Triplets, and Synonym-Strings"). That determination, in turn, depends on whether the canon against surplusage applies in the context of a particular statute. Justice Dietzen flips the relevant analysis on its head by first declaring that "care and support" is a legal doublet and then determining, through largely conclusory reasoning, that the canon against surplusage does not apply.[4] Merely declaring that something is a legal doublet, however, does not make it one. That is especially true when the authority relied upon by Justice Dietzen, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, does not identify the phrase "care and support" in a list of over 100 common legal doublets. Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 11.2(f) (2d ed. 2006). Nor does any other source, to our knowledge, list "care and support" as a legal doublet. S ...


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