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State v. Willis

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 12, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Berry Alan Willis, Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Elizabeth A. Scoggin, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Andrea Barts, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         The Minnesota Rules of Evidence apply to restitution hearings held under Minn. Stat. § 611A.045');">611A.045, subd. 3(b) (2016), because they are not listed among the "[m]iscellaneous proceedings" in Minn. R. Evid. 1101(b)(3).

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, Chief Justice.

         In this case we are asked to decide whether the Minnesota Rules of Evidence apply to restitution hearings held under Minn. Stat. § 611A.045');">611A.045, subd. 3(b) (2016).[1] The district court overruled objections to documents the State offered during the restitution hearing, concluding that the Rules of Evidence did not apply. The court of appeals affirmed in relevant part, concluding that because restitution is part of a defendant's sentence and Minn. R. Evid. 1101 exempts sentencing from the Rules of Evidence, the rules do not apply to restitution hearings. Because we conclude that Minn. R. Evid. 1101 requires application of the Minnesota Rules of Evidence to restitution hearings, we reverse.

         FACTS

         The crime at issue here occurred after a bank foreclosed on property that appellant Berry Alan Willis owned. The bank sold the foreclosed property to P.H., who made several improvements to the property with the help of her adult son, J.H. After the sale to P.H., Willis filed a forged quitclaim deed that purported to transfer the foreclosed property from P.H. back to Willis. When P.H. and J.H. later attempted to sell the foreclosed property, Willis's forged quitclaim deed and continual harassment of potential buyers interfered with those efforts. Based on the forged quitclaim deed, the State charged Willis with aggravated forgery, Minn. Stat. § 609.625, subd. 3 (2016). Willis pleaded not guilty and, after a jury trial, the jury found Willis guilty of aggravated forgery.

         At Willis's February 2015 sentencing, the district court imposed a presumptive guideline sentence. The court also told Willis that it was "reserv[ing] restitution for 90 days to allow the State and the victims to come forward with a claim or claims and then [Willis] would have that right to challenge it through the restitution process set forth by statute."[2]

         The State made a restitution request and in April 2015, the district court filed Restitution Findings and a Restitution Order. In that order, the court ordered Willis to pay $25, 400 to P.H. and J.H. Willis requested a restitution hearing.

         At the restitution hearing, the State presented a letter from P.H.'s attorney describing the $2, 000 in legal fees P.H. incurred to clear the title to the foreclosed property. The district court asked if Willis had any objections to the letter, and Willis replied, "Yes, I would object to this exhibit here." The court overruled Willis's objection and admitted the letter. Later in the hearing, the State offered a group of e-mails exchanged between J.H. and several real estate agents that described how Willis had interfered with the agents' efforts to show the foreclosed property to prospective buyers. Willis objected to the admissibility of the e-mails on hearsay grounds. When the court asked the State to respond to Willis's objection, the State replied, "the Rules of Evidence . . . don't strictly apply . . . to a restitution hearing and [J.H.] is qualified to explain the document." The court responded, "Okay. On that basis I'll overrule the objection." Willis made similar objections to five additional exhibits during the restitution hearing, all of which were admitted over his objections.

         About 3 weeks after the restitution hearing, the district court filed a written order requiring Willis to pay P.H. restitution in the amount of $10, 742, including the $2, 000 in legal fees outlined in the letter from P.H.'s attorney.[3] The order contained findings of fact that were based on the evidence presented at the restitution hearing, including the evidence to which Willis objected. Willis appealed the restitution order.

         On appeal, Willis challenged the district court's evidentiary rulings, arguing that the district court erred in failing to apply the Minnesota Rules of Evidence at the restitution hearing. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's evidentiary rulings. The court of appeals concluded that "the obligation to pay restitution is a part of a sentence, " and because the Rules of Evidence do not apply to sentencing proceedings, "it follows that the evidentiary rules do not apply to restitution hearings." State v. Willis, 883 N.W.2d 838, 840 (Minn.App. 2016). We granted Willis's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         The Minnesota Rules of Evidence "apply to all actions and proceedings in the courts of this state, " except for those proceedings described in Minn. R. Evid. 1101(b). Minn. R. Evid. 1101(a). The specific part of paragraph (b) at issue in this case is clause 3, titled "Miscellaneous proceedings." Under clause 3, the Rules of Evidence do not apply to:

Proceedings for extradition or rendition; probable cause hearings; sentencing, or granting or revoking probation; issuance of warrants for arrest, criminal summonses, and search warrants; and proceedings with respect to release on bail or otherwise.

Minn. R. Evid. 1101(b)(3) (emphasis added).

         The court of appeals concluded, and the State argues, that restitution hearings are part of "sentencing" for purposes of Minn. R. Evid. 1101(b)(3). Willis disagrees. The parties' competing arguments on the meaning of the word "sentencing" in Rule 1101(b)(3) present a question of law subject to de novo review. See State v. Stone, 784 N.W.2d 367, 370 (Minn. 2010). When interpreting the Rules of Evidence, we first look at the plain language of the rule. Id. Words and phrases are construed according to the rules of grammar and their common and approved usage. State v. Dahlin, 753 N.W.2d 300, 306 (Minn. 2008). If the plain language of a rule is unambiguous, we must apply it. State v. Davis, 864 N.W.2d 171, 182 (Minn. 2015). But "if the rule . . . [is] 'subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, ' ...


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