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State v. Zinski

Supreme Court of Minnesota

May 15, 2019

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
v.
Danny Lee Zinski, Respondent.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Pete Orput, Washington County Attorney, Nicholas A. Hydukovich, Assistant Washington County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Melissa Sheridan, Assistant State Public Defender, Eagan, Minnesota, for respondent.

         SYLLABUS

         1. Because the law at the time of respondent's appeal did not clearly require that the district court sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of relationship evidence admitted under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (1996), the district court did not commit an error that was plain in failing to give a limiting instruction.

         2. If a district court admits relationship evidence under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (2018), over a defendant's objection that the evidence is not admissible under that statute, the court must sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of such evidence, unless the defendant objects to such action by the court.

         Reversed.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, Chief Justice.

         The question presented in this case is whether the district court committed reversible error when the court did not, sua sponte, give a limiting instruction regarding the proper use of relationship evidence admitted under Minn. Stat. § 634.20 (1996).[1] The State charged respondent Danny Lee Zinski with first-degree burglary and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. At trial, the district court admitted 634.20 evidence[2] without sua sponte instructing the jurors on the proper use of that evidence. On appeal, Zinski argued that the district court committed an error that was plain when the court failed to sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of 634.20 evidence. The court of appeals agreed with Zinski and held that the district court's failure to sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of 634.20 evidence was an error that was plain. Although we announce a new rule that clarifies the law, the relevant law was unsettled at the time of appellate review, and, therefore, the court of appeals erred when the court concluded that Zinski had established an error that was plain. Accordingly, we reverse.

         FACTS

         The State charged Zinski with burglary in the first degree under Minn. Stat. § 609.582, subd. 1(c) (1996), and criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree under Minn. Stat. § 609.345, subd. 1(c) (2018), in connection with conduct involving D.S. Zinski and D.S. had been in a romantic relationship, but D.S. had ended the relationship just before the incident that gave rise to the charges.

         Zinski pleaded not guilty, and the matter proceeded to trial.[3] At trial, the district court admitted 634.20 evidence.[4] Specifically, D.S. testified that Zinski had repeatedly verbally and physically abused her during their relationship. Two neighbors and friends of D.S. testified that they had seen Zinski verbally abuse D.S. And L.S., who is D.S.'s son, testified that Zinski verbally and physically abused D.S.

         Zinski did not ask for, and the district court did not give, a limiting instruction on the proper use of 634.20 evidence, either when the evidence was introduced or in the final jury instructions. The jury found Zinski guilty on both counts.

         On appeal, Zinski argued that the district court committed an error that was plain when it failed to sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of 634.20 evidence. In support of his argument, Zinski cited State v. Word, 755 N.W.2d 776, 785 (Minn.App. 2008), for the proposition that the failure to sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of 634.20 evidence is an error that is plain. While Zinski's appeal was still pending in the court of appeals, the court of appeals issued its opinion in State v. Melanson, 906 N.W.2d 561 (Minn.App. 2018). In Melanson, the court of appeals held that "the district court did not plainly err in failing to provide a limiting instruction sua sponte to the jury regarding the admission of [634.20] evidence." Id. at 568.

         Despite the apparent conflict between Word and Melanson, the court of appeals held that the district court's failure to sua sponte instruct the jurors on the proper use of 634.20 evidence in Zinski's case was a plain error that entitled him to a new trial. We granted the State's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         Because Zinski did not ask the district court to instruct the jurors on the proper use of the 634.20 evidence and did not object to the court's final jury instructions, he has forfeited appellate review of the jury-instruction issue. See State v. Goodloe, 718 N.W.2d 413, 422 (Minn. 2006) ("Failure to request specific jury instructions or to object to instructions given generally results in forfeiture of the issue on appeal."). But, under the plain-error doctrine, an appellate court has the discretion to consider a forfeited issue if the defendant establishes (1) an error, (2) that was plain, and (3) that affected his substantial rights.[5] Id.; see State v. Matthews, 779 N.W.2d 543, 548 (Minn. 2010). Under our precedent, "[a]n error is plain if it 'contravenes case law, a rule, or a standard of conduct.'" State v. Hayes, 831 N.W.2d 546, 555 (Minn. 2013) (quoting State v. Ramey, 721 N.W.2d 294, 302 (Minn. 2006)).

         On appeal, the State asks us to reverse the court of appeals' conclusion that the district court's plain error entitles Zinski to a new trial. According to the State, relevant precedent was unclear at the time of Zinski's appeal on whether a limiting instruction was required concerning 634.20 evidence, and so the district court's failure to give the instruction cannot have been an error that was plain. For his part, Zinski relies on ...


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