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State v. Pakhnyuk

Supreme Court of Minnesota

May 8, 2019

State of Minnesota, Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
v.
Fedor Pakhnyuk, Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Ronald Hocevar, Scott County Attorney, Todd P. Zettler, First Assistant Scott County Attorney, Shakopee, Minnesota, for respondent/cross-appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Steven P. Russett, Assistant Appellate Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant/cross-respondent.

          Chutich, J. Concurring, Gildea, C.J.

         SYLLABUS

         1. A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence that is based on a statutory interpretation argument may be raised for the first time on appeal.

         2. Subdivision 1(a) of the criminal interference-with-privacy statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.746 (2018), does not require the State to prove that the defendant possessed the "intent to intrude upon or interfere with" a victim's privacy when he entered the property of another.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, JUSTICE.

         This appeal raises two issues. First, we must determine whether a defendant forfeits a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence that is based on a statutory interpretation argument when he fails to raise it in the district court. We conclude that the forfeiture rule does not apply to such a challenge.

         Second, we consider how to apply the intent element in subdivision 1(a) of Minnesota's criminal interference-with-privacy statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.746 (2018). Specifically, we must determine whether a criminal defendant charged with interference with privacy under subdivision 1(a) must have a specific "intent to intrude upon or interfere with" the victim's privacy when he enters the property of another, or if it is sufficient that the State prove this intent only when he "gazes, stares, or peeps" through the victim's window. See id. We agree with the court of appeals that, on this question, the statute is ambiguous. See State v. Pakhnyuk, 906 N.W.2d 571, 578 (Minn.App. 2018). We also agree that the principles of statutory construction compel a conclusion that the specific intent requirement applies only to the act of "gaz[ing], star[ing], or peep[ing]" through the victim's window. See Minn. Stat. § 609.746, subd. 1(a)(2); Pakhnyuk, 906 N.W.2d at 581. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         In July 2012, appellant Fedor Pakhnyuk, a resident of Chicago, Illinois, visited Minnesota to help his brother with some work. Pakhnyuk stayed with his brother and his family at their home in Shakopee.

         During Pakhnyuk's stay, his niece had three friends over for a sleepover. The niece was 14 years old, and her friends were of similar age. Pakhnyuk, then age 38, had been drinking at the house that evening, and he gave beer to the four girls. As the evening progressed, Pakhnyuk made several crude sexual remarks to the girls and convinced them to watch a movie together. As they watched, Pakhnyuk sat beside one of the friends and placed a blanket over both of their laps, reached under the blanket, and touched the friend's inner thigh. Offended by Pakhnyuk's advances, the girls went upstairs to the niece's bedroom for the rest of the evening.

         Five days later, Pakhnyuk, his niece, and one of the niece's same friends were still staying at the house. During the evening, the friend went to the kitchen to get some water. To return to the niece's bedroom, she had to walk through the living room where Pakhnyuk was sleeping on the floor. As she passed, he stood up, hugged her, grabbed her buttocks, and said, "Do you miss me?" She pushed Pakhnyuk off, ran upstairs to the niece's bedroom, and locked the door.

         The two girls were changing clothes in the niece's bedroom later that evening to get ready for bed. The friend looked out the window as she was undressing and saw Pakhnyuk sitting on the roof outside, staring at her. When she screamed, Pakhnyuk climbed down from the roof. Eventually, Pakhnyuk was confronted by his brother, who contacted the authorities.

         Pakhnyuk was charged with interference with privacy against a minor, Minn. Stat. § 609.746, subd. (1)(e)(2), furnishing alcohol to a person under the age of 21, Minn. Stat. § 340A.503, subd. 2(1) (2018), and disorderly conduct, Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(3) (2018). Pakhnyuk pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial. At trial, Pakhnyuk argued he did not act with a specific intent to interfere with privacy. The jury found Pakhnyuk guilty of all three charges.

         Pakhnyuk appealed his conviction for interference with privacy, arguing for the first time that the evidence was insufficient because the language of Minnesota Statutes section 609.746, subdivision 1(a), required the State to prove that when Pakhnyuk entered his brother's property, he had the specific intent "to intrude upon or interfere with" the privacy of another person. The State contended that Pakhnyuk forfeited his statutory interpretation argument because he did not raise it in the district court. In the alternative, the State asserted that subdivision 1(a) only required it to prove that Pakhnyuk possessed the specific intent to interfere with privacy when he peeped through his niece's bedroom window.

         A panel of the court of appeals held that Pakhnyuk did not forfeit his statutory interpretation argument when he failed to raise it in the district court. Pakhnyuk, 906 N.W.2d at 575. The court then rejected Pakhnyuk's statutory interpretation argument and affirmed his conviction, with one judge dissenting. See id. at 581. The court of appeals concluded that the statute was ambiguous because it was susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Id. at 578. The court relied upon an earlier version of the statute, which the court believed showed that the Legislature did not intend to require the specific intent to "intrude upon, or interfere with" the privacy of another to apply to the element of entering another's property. See id. at 578-79. Because the Legislature made only modest revisions when adopting the current version of the statute, the court determined that reading the statute to require the intent element to apply only to the act of peeping through a window better reflected the Legislature's intent to protect individual privacy. Id. at 579- 81. The dissent argued, on the contrary, that the statute was "so grievously ambiguous" that its meaning "must be determined by the rule of lenity." Id. at 585 (Johnson, J., dissenting). Given that the State introduced no evidence of Pakhnyuk's intent to intrude when he entered his brother's property, the dissent would have reversed his conviction. Id. at 586.

         Pakhnyuk petitioned for review. The State cross-petitioned for review of the holding of the court of appeals that Pakhnyuk did not forfeit his statutory interpretation argument when he first raised it on appeal. We granted both petitions.

         ANALYSIS

         I.

         Pakhnyuk argues that the language of Minnesota Statutes section 609.746, subdivision 1(a), requires the State to prove that when Pakhnyuk entered his brother's property, he had the specific intent "to intrude upon or interfere with" the privacy of another person. Asserting that the State did not present any evidence on this element, Pakhnyuk argues that the evidence is insufficient to support his conviction for interference with privacy. The State contends, however, that Pakhnyuk forfeited his statutory interpretation argument when he failed to raise it in the district court. Before considering the merits of Pakhnyuk's statutory interpretation argument, therefore, we must first address whether his argument is properly before our court.

         As a general rule, an error in the district court can be forfeited on appeal by the failure to make a timely objection in the district court, even when the error affects the defendant's constitutional rights. State v. Osborne, 715 N.W.2d 436, 441 (Minn. 2006). Whether the forfeiture rule applies here presents a question of appellate procedure that we review de novo. Crowley v. Meyer, 897 N.W.2d 288, 292 (Minn. 2017). Although we have applied our forfeiture doctrine to claims of prosecutorial misconduct, erroneous jury instructions, evidentiary rulings, responses to jury questions, and sentencing decisions, see Osborne, 715 N.W.2d at 441 (listing examples), the parties have identified no case that applies the doctrine to sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenges. We decline to apply our forfeiture rule here for three reasons.

         First, a key difference exists between our review of a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim and our review of the issues that are generally subject to forfeiture. The issues that we have recognized may be forfeited, see id., concern how guilt was proven in a particular case. A claim that the State's evidence was insufficient to support the conviction, however, concerns whether guilt was proven at all. A primary purpose of the forfeiture rule is to encourage contemporaneous objections that allow the district court to correct problems when they occur. See, e.g., Rairdon v. State, 557 N.W.2d 318, 323 n.5 (Minn. 1996). A defendant who challenges the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial, however, raises essentially the same argument on appeal that he presented to the jury at trial: that he was not guilty of a crime.

         Second, a defendant's challenge on appeal to the sufficiency of the evidence, on the grounds that the statute included an element that the State failed to prove, raises due-process concerns. Due process requires that the State bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt every element of a charged offense in a criminal trial. State v. Struzyk, 869 N.W.2d 280, 289 (Minn. 2015). When the State prosecutes a person for violating a criminal statute, it bears the burden of establishing that the defendant has committed an act bringing him within the criminal statute. See Johnson v. Florida, 391 U.S. 596, 598 (1968) (per curiam) ("The burden . . . is on the State to prove that an accused has committed an act bringing him within a criminal statute."); State v. Vasko, 889 N.W.2d 551, 556 (Minn. 2017) ("[T]he meaning of a criminal statute is intertwined with the issue of whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant violated the statute . . . .").

         The harsh consequences of the forfeiture rule could threaten this due-process protection when the proper interpretation of the language of a criminal statute is in question. If the State's forfeiture argument prevailed, a defendant who failed to raise his statutory interpretation argument at trial would stand convicted of a crime-even if the defendant were correct that the language of the statute required the State to prove an element that was unproven in the defendant's case. A defendant's due-process interests are better protected by a rule that allows him to challenge the sufficiency of the State's evidence based on a statutory interpretation argument that is raised for the first time on appeal.[1]

         Finally, this rule is not unfair to the State. The State contends otherwise, asserting that it would be inequitable to permit review here because the State is bound by the record that it created under the "old" interpretation of the interference-with-privacy statute. Because no appellate court had decided the precise issue of when specific intent under the interference-with-privacy statute must arise-when the defendant enters the ...


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