of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
J. Bellig, Joseph A. Gangi, Farrish Johnson Law Office,
Chtd., Mankato, Minnesota, for respondent.
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.
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
Timothy J. Droske, Nathan J. Ebnet, Dorsey & Whitney LLP,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amici curiae The Innocence
Network and the Innocence Project of Minnesota.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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 ...