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State v. Harris

Supreme Court of Minnesota

May 24, 2017

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
v.
Carlos Maurice Harris, Respondent.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenney, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Rochelle R. Winn, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Matthew Frank, Assistant Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Attorney General.

          Daniel J. Koewler, Ramsay Law Firm, PLLC, Roseville, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Robert Small, Executive Director, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Nicholas A. Hydukovich, Assistant Washington County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

          Robin M. Wolpert, Sapientia Law Group, PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Charles F. Webber, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota State Bar Association, Criminal Law Section.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The State has not established a compelling reason to overrule an approximately century-old precedent governing appellate review of convictions supported only by circumstantial evidence.

         2. The evidence is insufficient to support appellant's conviction of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person because the circumstances proved, when viewed as a whole, support a reasonable inference other than guilt.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          ANDERSON, Justice.

         A jury found respondent Carlos Harris guilty of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the jury's verdict. Appellant State of Minnesota petitioned for review, asserting that the court of appeals erred in its application of the law and asking us to abandon the separate standard of review for convictions based on circumstantial evidence. We conclude that the court of appeals correctly applied the law and we decline the invitation to overrule our precedent. We therefore affirm the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         On March 4, 2014, a police officer working with a United States Marshals task force was looking for J.A. based on an arrest warrant. The officer began surveillance in an area where information indicated that J.A. could be found. The officer observed J.A. get into the passenger seat of a Cadillac car and watched the car drive away. Police later learned that Harris was driving the car; J.A. was in the front passenger seat; and another person, K.E., was seated behind Harris. They also learned that the car was owned by Harris's brother.

         The officer followed the car in an unmarked police vehicle. He did not immediately attempt to stop the car because he was concerned about possible danger to bystanders and was waiting for additional police support.

         Eventually, after additional law enforcement arrived, the officer activated his lights and siren in an attempt to stop the car. The emergency lights were more noticeable than normal and were described as lighting up the officer's vehicle "like a Christmas tree." The car continued traveling between 30 and 35 miles an hour for approximately three blocks. The officer saw movement inside the car. As the car approached the freeway, the officer feared the occupants might attempt to flee, so he pulled his vehicle alongside the car, causing it to stop at the curb.

         Several police officers then approached the car and ordered the occupants to show their hands. Although Harris initially complied with this command, at some point he lowered his hands below the window. However, when commanded to raise his hands again, he did so. Harris was removed from the car first.

         J.A. was less cooperative. When police told J.A. to show his hands, J.A. refused to do so. He also made furtive movements in his lap and near the glove compartment. Eventually, J.A. complied with police commands to get out of the car; but after getting out of the car, J.A. reached his hand into the car again.

         The backseat passenger, K.E., was the last person removed from the car. Police then secured Harris, J.A., and K.E. in three separate squad cars and inspected the Cadillac to ensure that nobody else was hiding in it. When police looked up, to the right of, and slightly behind the driver's seat, they saw that the headlining of the car had been altered.[1]The car had a sunroof in the middle of the roof. A panel slides back into the headlining to expose the glass of the sunroof and allow light into the car. When police searched the car, the panel was slid back. However, the void into which the panel usually retracts had been expanded because the headlining had been pulled down a few inches. The officer noticed the butt end of a firearm partially sticking out of this void.

         The firearm was a .45-caliber Springfield model 1911 with a "huge" magazine attached to it. There were "quite a few" rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. The firearm was cocked and ready to fire.

         The State charged Harris with possession of a firearm by an ineligible person under Minn. Stat. § 624.713, subd. 1(2) (2016). At trial, the parties stipulated that Harris was ineligible to possess a firearm, so the only issue the jury considered was whether Harris possessed the firearm. The State introduced forensic evidence at trial showing that the firearm contained a mixture of male and female DNA from five or more people. Approximately 75.7% of the general population could be excluded as contributors to this DNA mixture, but Harris, J.A., and K.E. could not. The State presented circumstantial evidence that Harris possessed the firearm, and the jury returned a guilty verdict. The court of appeals reversed the conviction, concluding that the circumstantial evidence was insufficient to convict Harris of the offense. State v. Harris, No. A15-0711, 2016 WL 1396689 (Minn.App. Apr. 11, 2016). We granted the State's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         I.

         As an initial matter, we turn to the standard of review. The State argues that the court of appeals erred by engaging in "fine-grained factual parsing" of the evidence and that this error demonstrates that our standard of review for convictions based on circumstantial evidence is unnecessarily complicated, confusing, misleading, and difficult to apply. The State urges us to abandon this standard of review and adopt in its place a unified standard of review that applies to all evidence, circumstantial or otherwise.

         For approximately a century, we have applied a separate standard of review to challenges to the sufficiency of circumstantial evidence.[2] State v. Johnson, 217 N.W. 683, 684 (Minn. 1928). Under that standard, we identify the circumstances proved and independently consider the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those circumstances, when viewed as a whole. State v. Andersen, 784 N.W.2d 320');">784 N.W.2d 320, 329 (Minn. 2010); see State v. Robertson, 884 N.W.2d 864, 871-72 (Minn. 2016) (considering whether "[w]hen viewed as a whole, the circumstances proved support[ed] a rational inference that Robertson was the shooter"); State v. Silvernail, 831 N.W.2d 594');">831 N.W.2d 594, 599 (Minn. 2013) (explaining that "[w]e review the circumstantial evidence not as isolated facts, but as a whole"). "To sustain a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the circumstances proved as a whole must be consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of guilt." State v. Fox, 868 N.W.2d 206, 223 (Minn. 2015).

         This circumstantial-evidence standard dates back to at least 1928, and possibly earlier. Johnson, 217 N.W. at 684 ("[A]ll the circumstances proved must be consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of his guilt." (citing State v. Johnson, 35 N.W. 373, 376 (Minn. 1887)). It has remained our law ever since. See State v. Cox, 884 N.W.2d 400, 411 (Minn. 2016) ("To sustain a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the circumstances proved must be consistent with the hypothesis that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis other than guilt."); State v. Taylor, 650 N.W.2d 190, 206 (Minn. 2002) ("Circumstantial evidence must form a complete chain that, in view of the evidence as a whole, leads so directly to the guilt of the defendant as to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt any reasonable inference other than guilt."); State v. Scharmer, 501 N.W.2d 620, 622 (Minn. 1993) (reversing convictions because "[t]he evidence did not form a complete chain leading so directly to appellant's guilt as to exclude beyond a reasonable doubt any rational hypothesis except that of his guilt"); State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 431 (Minn. 1989) (reversing a conviction because "[t]he circumstantial evidence was not inconsistent with rational hypotheses other than guilt").

         We are "extremely reluctant" to overrule our precedent absent a compelling reason to do so. State v. Lee, 706 N.W.2d 491');">706 N.W.2d 491, 494 (Minn. 2005).[3] The State offers several reasons for overruling Johnson, but none are compelling.

         First, the State argues that many other jurisdictions have abandoned a separate circumstantial-evidence standard of review, opting instead for a unified standard of review that applies to all convictions. See Easlick v. State, 90 P.3d 556, 557 & n.1 (Okla. Crim. App. 2004) (listing states that apply a unified standard of review when examining the sufficiency of both direct and circumstantial evidence). Although previously we have considered the practice of other states in deciding whether to overrule our precedent, see Cargill, Inc. v. Ace Am. Ins. Co., 784 N.W.2d 341');">784 N.W.2d 341, 352-53 (Minn. 2010) (noting that our precedent was "the minority view" among other courts), we never have held that the extent to which other jurisdictions have adopted a different approach is, by itself, a compelling reason to overrule our precedent. We are similarly unpersuaded by the State's argument here.

         Next, the State argues that the circumstantial-evidence standard of review rests on outdated views of the differences between direct and circumstantial evidence. We have defined circumstantial evidence as "evidence from which the factfinder can infer whether the facts in dispute existed or did not exist." State v. Hokanson, 821 N.W.2d 340, 354 n.3 (Minn. 2012) (quoting 1 Barbara E. Bergman & Nancy Hollander, Whartons Criminal Evidence § 1:8 (15th ed. 1997)). In contrast, direct evidence is "[e]vidence that is based on personal knowledge or observation and that, if true, proves a fact without inference or presumption." State v. Clark, 739 N.W.2d 412, 421 n.4 (Minn. 2007) (alteration in original) (quoting Bernhardt v. State, 684 N.W.2d 465');">684 N.W.2d 465, 477 n.11 (Minn. 2004)). Thus, circumstantial evidence always requires an inferential step to prove a fact that is not required with direct evidence. Silvernail, 831 N.W.2d at 604 (Stras, J., concurring). This basic characteristic of circumstantial evidence is not outdated; it is the same today as it was when we decided Johnson in 1928. Our circumstantial-evidence standard of review appropriately balances our need to defer to the jury's credibility determinations and our duty to ensure that defendants not be convicted based on insufficient evidence.[4]

         The State also argues that we should overrule Johnson because, since 2010, there has been a "dramatic increase" in the number of convictions reversed on appeal because of insufficient circumstantial evidence.[5] But the State's research relies solely on the raw number of convictions reversed on appeal. It does not attempt to show the number of convictions that were appealed during the relevant periods, which would allow us to determine whether there has been an increase in the percentage of convictions reversed on appeal. Nor does the State attempt to show that a substantial number of these convictions were wrongly reversed. The State also does not explain why we would abandon a century-long standard of review simply if, as the State argues, a greater number of criminal convictions have been reversed since 2010. In short, the State's statistics do not provide a compelling reason to depart from our precedent.

         Finally, the State argues that our standard of review creates confusion for appellate courts, noting that the court of appeals has said it can sometimes be difficult to identify the "circumstances proved, " State v. McCormick, 835 N.W.2d 498, 505-06 n.2 (Minn.App. 2013), and has suggested that juries are in the best position to determine which inferences are reasonable, State v. Seavey, No. A13-0138, 2013 WL 5976070, at *5 (Minn.App. Nov. 12, 2013) (Smith, J., concurring specially). We believe our case law addresses these concerns.

         Nevertheless, we take this opportunity to reaffirm what we have already stated about the circumstantial-evidence standard of review. As the fact finder, the jury is in a unique position to determine the credibility of the witnesses and weigh the evidence before it. State v. Gatson, 801 N.W.2d 134, 144 (Minn. 2011). It "is free to accept part and reject part of a witness's testimony." State v. Landa, 642 N.W.2d 720, 725 (Minn. 2002). To be clear, the first step of our circumstantial-evidence test protects these principles-it requires an appellate court to winnow down the evidence presented at trial by resolving all questions of fact in favor of the jury's verdict, resulting in a subset of facts that constitute "the circumstances proved." See State v. Hawes, 801 N.W.2d 659, 670 (Minn. 2011) (disregarding evidence inconsistent with the verdict).

         Having preserved the jury's credibility findings, the appellate court considers at the next step whether a reasonable inference of guilt can be drawn from the circumstances proved, viewed as a whole, and whether a reasonable inference inconsistent with guilt can be drawn from the circumstances proved, again viewed as a whole. State v. Al-Naseer, 788 N.W.2d 469, 474-75, 478-79 (Minn. 2010). This second step does not encroach on the jury's credibility determinations because the act of inferring involves the drawing of permissible deductions, not actual fact finding by the jury. See State v. Jones, 124 N.W.2d 729, 731 (Minn. 1963). The second part of the second step-determining whether a reasonable inference inconsistent with guilt can be drawn-also ensures that there is no reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. For the foregoing reasons, we cannot agree that an appellate court invades the fact-finding function of the jury when it applies the circumstantial-evidence standard of review.

         In sum, the State has not established a compelling reason for us to overrule an approximately century-old rule governing the review of convictions based on circumstantial evidence. We therefore decline the State's invitation to abandon the circumstantial-evidence standard.

         II.

         Having resolved the standard-of-review question, we next address whether, under the circumstantial-evidence standard, the evidence in this case is sufficient to support a guilty verdict. Our "first task is to identify the circumstances proved." Andersen, 784 N.W.2d at 329 (citation omitted). In determining the circumstances proved, we disregard evidence that is inconsistent with the jury's verdict. Hawes, 801 N.W.2d at 669-70. The second step is to independently consider the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the circumstances proved, when viewed as a whole. Robertson, 884 N.W.2d at 871 (considering whether "[w]hen viewed as a whole, the circumstances proved support[ed] a rational inference that Robertson was the shooter"). We give no deference to the jury's choice between reasonable inferences at this second step. Fox, 868 N.W.2d at 223. To sustain the conviction, the circumstances proved, when viewed as a whole, must be consistent with a reasonable inference that the accused is guilty and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of guilt. Id.

         To convict Harris of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person, the State was required to prove in relevant part that he knowingly possessed the firearm. State v. Salyers, 858 N.W.2d 156, 161 (Minn. 2015). A defendant may possess an item jointly with another person. State v. Lee, 683 N.W.2d 309, 317 n.7 (Minn. 2004); State v. Lorenz, 368 N.W.2d 284, 285-86 (Minn. 1985) (concluding that the evidence was sufficient to infer that the defendant jointly possessed the marijuana found in the defendant's bedroom with the owner of the house). Possession may be proved through evidence of actual or constructive possession. Salyers, 858 N.W.2d at 159. There are two methods by which the State may prove constructive possession. Id. The State may show that the police found the item in a place under the defendant's exclusive control to which other people normally did not have access. State v. Florine, 226 N.W.2d 609, 611 (Minn. 1975). Alternatively, if police found the item in a place to which others had access, the State must show that there is a strong probability (inferable from other evidence) that at the time the defendant was consciously or knowingly exercising dominion and control over it. Id.

         To establish that a defendant was consciously or knowingly exercising dominion and control over a firearm at the time in question, the State must prove more than the defendant's mere proximity to the firearm. See Florine, 226 N.W.2d at 611 ("Because defendant did not have exclusive possession of the automobile, one could not automatically infer from the mere fact that cocaine was found in the automobile that the cocaine belonged to defendant."); see also Lee, 683 N.W.2d at 316 (explaining evidence that showed defendant "exercis[ed] dominion and control over the area in which the firearms and marijuana were found"). In addition, a defendant's ease of access to a firearm is but "one factor relevant to establishing constructive possession, . . . not the sole factor or necessarily even the most important factor." Salyers, 858 N.W.2d at 159. In sum, the State must prove that the defendant had an ability and intent to exercise dominion and control over the firearm. See, e.g., State v. Onyelobi, 879 N.W.2d 334, 343-44 (Minn. 2016) (concluding that facts were "sufficient to give rise to an honest and strong belief" that the defendant possessed the narcotics, jointly or singly, "that police saw in her hotel room").

         Here, the State's theory at trial was that Harris constructively possessed the firearm found in the car, individually or jointly, with his two passengers. Consequently, the issue is whether the circumstances proved, viewed as a whole, are consistent with a reasonable inference that Harris knowingly exercised dominion and control over the firearm and inconsistent with a rational hypothesis that he did not knowingly exercise dominion and control over the firearm.

         The circumstances proved that implicate Harris include: (1) on the night of March 4, 2014, Harris was driving a car, J.A. was sitting in the front passenger seat, and K.E. was sitting in the rear seat; (2) there was an active warrant for J.A.'s arrest; (3) after securing backup assistance, the police officer assigned to execute the arrest warrant activated the lights and siren on his vehicle; (4) Harris continued driving between 30 and 35 miles per hour for about three blocks after the officer activated his lights and siren; (5) the officer saw movement in the car; (6) when the police officer searched the car, he noticed that the headlining had been pulled down near the sunroof, to the right and slightly behind the driver's seat, creating a small void; (7) the officer saw an object, which he clearly recognized as the butt end of a silver handgun, wedged in this void between the headlining and roof of the car; (8) a mixture of male and female DNA from five or more people was recovered from the firearm; and (9) subsequent DNA testing concluded that none of the occupants of the vehicle could be excluded as contributors to the DNA mixture found on the firearm, but 75.7% of the general population could be.[6]

         The State contends that, when viewed as a whole, the circumstances proved are inconsistent with any rational hypothesis except that of guilt.[7] We disagree. When viewed as a whole, the circumstances proved do not preclude a reasonable inference that Harris did not know the firearm was in the car.[8] Harris did not own the car and the officer who searched the car did not immediately see the firearm. It was not until the officer looked up, to the right of, and slightly behind the driver's seat that he saw an object wedged between the headliner and the roof of the car. Although the officer "clearly" recognized the object as the butt of a silver handgun, there is no evidence that a lay person readily would have recognized the object as the butt of a firearm, especially in the dark of night. In addition, although the officer saw movement in the car, there was no testimony that this movement was suspicious or that Harris or either of his passengers ever reached toward the sunroof. Finally, neither the DNA test results nor Harris's failure to immediately stop the car preclude a reasonable inference that Harris did not know the firearm was in the car. As the State's expert conceded, approximately 25% of the general population could not be excluded as a source of the DNA found on the firearm. Moreover, it is reasonable to infer that Harris failed to immediately stop the car because he knew there was an outstanding warrant for J.A.'s arrest.

         Because the circumstances proved, when viewed as a whole, are consistent with a reasonable inference that Harris did not know the firearm was in the car, we agree with the court of appeals that the State presented insufficient evidence to support Harris's conviction of possession of a firearm by an ineligible person.[9]

         CONCLUSION

         For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals. Affirmed.

         DISSENT

          LILLEHAUG, J. (dissenting).

         Every week in at least one of Minnesota's 87 counties, a district court instructs a jury that a fact may be proven by direct evidence, or by circumstantial evidence, or by both. The district court admonishes the jury that the law does not prefer one form of evidence over the other.

         But, on appellate review, we do not follow that admonition. Our standards of review prefer direct evidence. When we review convictions, we apply one standard for convictions based on direct evidence, and we apply another standard for convictions based on circumstantial evidence. And we have avoided announcing a definitive standard for review of convictions based on both kinds of evidence.

         This confusing dichotomy between how we expect juries to decide cases and how we review their decisions has existed for almost 90 years. Nine decades of confusion is long enough. Evidence is evidence. Minnesota should join the appellate courts of the United States, 41 other states, and the District of Columbia in adopting a unified standard of review. I respectfully dissent.

         I.

         Before discussing the antiquated notion that circumstantial evidence is inherently different and less reliable than direct evidence, let me discuss the doctrine on which the majority grounds its decision: stare decisis. What weight should we give to our prior decisions?

         The answer, according to both our court and the United States Supreme Court, is that it depends on the subject matter. Stare decisis is at its "acme in cases involving property and contract rights, where reliance interests are involved . . .; the opposite is true in cases . . . involving procedural and evidentiary rules."[1] As we said in Johnson v. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co., [2] "[w]here no rights have vested in reliance upon former decisions, the rule [of stare decisis] is not so strictly followed."

         In this case, we do not address a matter of substantive law; we address a standard of review. A standard of review is an internal appellate method of analysis. Unlike when we interpret and apply statutes, separation of powers considerations are not present. Our standards of review are not even official rules of the judicial branch, which are promulgated (usually with public notice and comment) pursuant to our rule-making authority. That is why, as one scholar puts it, "stare decisis is less relevant when deciding standards of review than in perhaps any other area of law."[3]

         In practice, we have been open to changing standards of review based on logic and experience. One example is how we review a conviction when there has been unobjected-to prosecutorial misconduct. In State v. Brown[4] and State v. Caron, [5] we reviewed convictions for prosecutorial misconduct. Our standard of review did not require any consideration of whether the defendant actually objected to the misconduct. It turned out that such a standard of review was a disincentive for a defendant to make trial objections. So, in State v. Ramey, [6] we abrogated Brown and Caron in favor of the plain-error standard of review.

         Ramey recognized that our plain-error standard of review had been "clarified" in State v. Griller.[7] Griller adopted the now-familiar three-prong standard announced the year before in Johnson v. United States.[8] In other words, our standards of review are hardly rigid rules of law, but instead evolve and, hopefully, improve over time.[9]

         Whether our precedents are substantive or procedural, we have made clear that "stare decisis does not bind us to unsound principles."[10] We have found compelling reasons to overturn other precedent when the grounds for adopting the rule in question no longer exist or other courts have already overturned similar precedent.[11] Here, our standard of review should not remain tethered to an unsound distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence.

         II.

         In our district courts, juries and judges are not supposed to prefer direct evidence to circumstantial evidence, or vice versa.[12] But on appellate review, we do exactly that.[13]

         For a conviction based on direct evidence, we apply the traditional standard whereby we assume that "the jury believed the State's witnesses and disbelieved any evidence to the contrary."[14] We will not "disturb the verdict if the jury, acting with due regard for the presumption of innocence and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, ...


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