of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K.
Jenney, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender,
Rochelle R. Winn, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul,
Minnesota, for respondent.
Swanson, Attorney General, Matthew Frank, Assistant Attorney
General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota
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
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.
State has not established a compelling reason to overrule an
approximately century-old precedent governing appellate
review of convictions supported only by circumstantial
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
approximately a century, we have applied a separate standard
of review to challenges to the sufficiency of circumstantial
evidence. 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).
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
"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). The State offers several
reasons for overruling Johnson, but none are
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
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
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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").
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
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
State contends that, when viewed as a whole, the
circumstances proved are inconsistent with any rational
hypothesis except that of guilt. 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. 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
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.
foregoing reasons, we affirm the decision of the court of
LILLEHAUG, J. (dissenting).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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." As we said in
Johnson v. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad
Co.,  "[w]here no rights have vested in
reliance upon former decisions, the rule [of stare decisis]
is not so strictly followed."
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
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 and State
v. Caron,  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,  we abrogated
Brown and Caron in favor of the plain-error
standard of review.
recognized that our plain-error standard of review had been
"clarified" in State v.
Griller. Griller adopted the now-familiar
three-prong standard announced the year before in Johnson
v. United States. In other words, our standards of
review are hardly rigid rules of law, but instead evolve and,
hopefully, improve over time.
our precedents are substantive or procedural, we have made
clear that "stare decisis does not bind us to unsound
principles." 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. Here, our standard of review
should not remain tethered to an unsound distinction between
direct and circumstantial evidence.
district courts, juries and judges are not supposed to prefer
direct evidence to circumstantial evidence, or vice
versa. But on appellate review, we do exactly
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." 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