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Back v. State

Supreme Court of Minnesota

September 27, 2017

Danna Rochelle Back, Respondent,
v.
State of Minnesota, Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Daniel J. Bellig, Joseph A. Gangi, Farrish Johnson Law Office, Chtd., Mankato, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, David C. Brown, Deputy County Attorney, Linda M. Freyer, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Karen Daniel, Sara Sommervold, Andrea Lewis, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Chicago, Illinois; and Colette Routel, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae The Center on Wrongful Convictions Women's Project.

          Timothy J. Droske, Nathan J. Ebnet, Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amici curiae The Innocence Network and the Innocence Project of Minnesota.

         SYLLABUS

         1. A claimant has not been "exonerated" under Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i) (2016), unless the prosecutor dismisses the charges, even if an appellate court has already reversed or vacated the claimant's conviction on grounds consistent with innocence.

         2. When an appellate court reverses a conviction outright in a case involving only a single charge, the requirement that a prosecutor dismiss the charge before a claimant is eligible to file a petition for compensation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because it denies eligibility to a class of individuals based on a legally impossible act.

         3. The remedy for the as-applied equal-protection violation in this case is to sever Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i), from the remainder of the statute.

         Reversed.

          OPINION

          STRAS, JUSTICE.

         This case requires us to determine whether Danna Rochelle Back may file a petition for an order declaring her eligible for compensation under Minnesota's Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 590.11, 611.362-.368 (2016) (the "exoneration-compensation statute"). The case raises three purely legal questions. First, was Back "exonerated" under Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i), when we reversed her conviction of second-degree manslaughter after concluding that she could not have been negligently culpable as a matter of law? Second, if our decision did not "exonerate[]" Back, can a statute, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, require a prosecutor to dismiss charges that have already been reversed by an appellate court? Third, if the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement is unconstitutional as applied to Back, is it severable from the remainder of the exoneration-compensation statute? Because the answer to all three questions is no, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals, which severed only the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement from Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i).

         FACTS

         In 2007, Back was involved in an altercation between two men, both of whom were at one point in a romantic relationship with Back. The altercation escalated into a shooting, which resulted in the death of one of the men. State v. Back, 775 N.W.2d 866, 867-68 (Minn. 2009). Although Back did not possess or fire the murder weapon, the State charged her with multiple counts of homicide based on her involvement. Id. Following a trial, a jury found Back guilty of second-degree manslaughter, which requires an offender to "cause[] the death of another . . . by . . . culpable negligence . . . creat[ing] an unreasonable risk . . . of causing death or great bodily harm to another." Minn. Stat. § 609.205(1) (2016); Back, 775 N.W.2d at 869. We reversed Back's conviction, concluding as a matter of law that Back was not culpably negligent because she did not have a duty to control the shooter or protect the victim. Back, 775 N.W.2d at 872.

         Several years later, following the passage of the exoneration-compensation statute, Back filed a petition seeking remuneration as an "exonerated" individual under Minn. Stat. § 590.11, which sets forth the definitions and procedural requirements for pursuing exoneration-compensation claims. The State opposed Back's petition, arguing that Back was not "exonerated" under Minn. Stat. § 590.11 because the prosecutor never dismissed the second-degree-manslaughter charge. See Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i) (defining "exonerated" to mean that "a court of this state" has "vacated or reversed a judgment of conviction . . . and the prosecutor dismissed the charges" (emphasis added)). It is undisputed that the prosecutor failed to take any action following our decision, much less "dismiss[]" the second-degree-manslaughter charge. Nevertheless, Back argued before the district court that the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement, as applied to her case, violates equal protection because it denied eligibility based on an irrational classification: the prosecutor's failure to carry out what was, in Back's view, a meaningless act. The district court disagreed and denied Back's petition, concluding that the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement does not violate equal protection.

         The court of appeals reached a different conclusion on the constitutional question. According to the court of appeals, the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement violates equal protection because requiring the prosecutor to affirmatively act has no impact on the proceedings once an appellate court reverses a criminal conviction outright. Back v. State, 883 N.W.2d 614, 626-27 (Minn.App. 2016). Rather than invalidating the entirety of Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1(1)(i), however, the court severed only the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement from the remainder of the provision, effectively requiring only "a court of this state . . . [to] vacate[] or reverse[] a judgment of conviction on grounds consistent with innocence" for an individual to qualify as "exonerated." We granted the State's petition for review to address the meaning of the term "exonerated"; whether the prosecutorial- dismissal requirement violates equal protection; and if necessary, the remedy for the equal-protection violation.

         ANALYSIS

         The exoneration-compensation statute, which the Legislature enacted in 2014, establishes a framework for compensating individuals who have served time in prison after a wrongful conviction. See Minn. Stat. §§ 590.11, 611.362-.368. The threshold determination under the exoneration-compensation statute is whether an individual has been "exonerated." See Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subds. 1, 3. If an individual has been "exonerated" and has met various other eligibility requirements in Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 5, such as having been "convicted of a felony and served any part of the imposed sentence in prison, " then the district court "shall issue an order" declaring the claimant eligible for compensation. See Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 7.

         Gaining eligibility under the exoneration-compensation statute, however, is only the first step on the path to a monetary award. If the district court decides that a claimant is eligible, the claimant then has 60 days to file another petition, which is considered by a compensation panel "of three attorneys or judges" appointed by the Chief Justice. See Minn. Stat. §§ 611.362-.363. If the parties cannot reach a settlement, the panel must hold an evidentiary hearing to "determine the amount of damages to be awarded" based on the evidence and arguments of the parties. See Minn. Stat. §§ 611.363-.364. The final award is forwarded to the Commissioner of Management and Budget, who must then "submit the amount of the award to the [L]egislature for consideration . . . during the next session of the [L]egislature." Minn. Stat. § 611.367. The decision of the compensation panel, just like the decision of the district court on the initial order of eligibility, is subject to judicial review. See Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 8 (allowing the initial order to be appealed to the court of appeals if certain requirements are met); Minn. Stat. § 611.366 (permitting "[a] party aggrieved by an award of damages" to obtain "judicial review of the decision" in accordance with Minnesota's Administrative Procedure Act).

         I.

         Each of the legal questions presented by this case arises out of the first step of the exoneration-compensation statute: the district court's initial determination about whether a claimant is eligible to submit a petition to the compensation panel. The district court determined that Back was ineligible because the prosecutor-here, the Hennepin County Attorney-never dismissed the charges against her, even after we reversed Back's second-degree-manslaughter conviction on appeal. The first question we must answer, before addressing Back's constitutional argument, is whether our reversal of Back's conviction, standing alone, "exonerated" her. Answering this question presents an issue of statutory interpretation that we review de novo. State v. Leathers, 799 N.W.2d 606, 608 (Minn. 2011).

         The plain language of the statute answers the interpretive question posed by this case. Specifically, Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1, defines what it means to qualify as "exonerated" under the exoneration-compensation statute. It states as follows:

Subdivision 1. Definition. For purposes of this section, "exonerated" means that:
(1) a court of this state:
(i) vacated or reversed a judgment of conviction on grounds consistent with innocence and the prosecutor dismissed the charges; or
(ii) ordered a new trial on grounds consistent with innocence and the prosecutor dismissed the charges or the petitioner was found not guilty at the new trial; and
(2) the time for appeal of the order resulting in exoneration has expired or the order has been affirmed and is final.

Minn. Stat. § 590.11, subd. 1 (emphasis added).

         To qualify as "exonerated, " "a court of this state" must either "vacate[] or reverse[] a judgment of conviction on grounds consistent with innocence" or "order[] a new trial on grounds consistent with innocence." Id. We will assume, for the sake of deciding this particular case, that Back satisfies the first of the two alternatives based on our decision reversing her ...


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