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Court addressed three stalking cases

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The Minnesota anti-stalking law is being invoked with increasing frequency by criminal law authroities. The rise in stalking prosecution seems attributable to several factors. One is the growing number of such episodes. Additionally, prosecutors have generally been successful in pursuing these charges, which leads to further actions being brought.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently addressed three criminal stalking cases. The threesome shared some similarities. In all three, the stalking offenses resulted in convictions by the respective trial courts, one by a bench trial and the other two by juries. The appellate court rejected all three appeals, affirming the convictions in the trio of cases.

Multiple matter

A series of episodes constituted a “pattern” of stalking to sustain a conviction for felony stalking in State v. Tramble. A bench trial in Ramsey County District Court resulted in a conviction for violation of Minn. Stat. sec. 609.709, as well as terroristic threats under Minn. Stat. sec. 609.713.

The appellate court affirmed, rejecting the defendant’s contention that the trial court erroneously counted the same act multiple times in finding a violation of the “pattern” provision, which requires multiple acts within a five-year period. The trial court found at least six separate incidents that constituted violations of some of the 16 enumerated statutes that could constitute a “pattern” offense. These included violating an Order for Protection, two third-degree burglaries on the same day and another one the following night. Two other episodes of terroristic threats occurred within a day of each other.

The trial court properly concluded that each of these “discreet acts could be characterized as stalking.” Because the state established “at least two qualifying, underlying acts,” the conviction for stalking was not erroneous.

The defendant’s challenge to the trial court’s adoption of findings that could be characterized as reiterating “verbatim” those proposed by the prosecution also did not warrant reversal. While the wholesale adoption of one party’s post-trial decision is hardly commendable, in this case the trial judge asked both parties to submit findings after trial. Although the trial court adopted many of the proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law submitted by the prosecution, it also made “minor additions and alterations … and, most importantly, unequivocally rejected” one of the state’s contentions of property damage as an underlying criminal act. These “variations” reflect that the trial judge made “independent consideration of the case” and negates the contention that the prosecution’s submission was adopted at the contention of “nearly verbatim adoption” of the prosecution’s contention.

Concurrent case

In a concurrent case, a challenge to the sufficiency of evidence in a gross misdemeanor harassment-stalking case was rejected in State v. Boettcher. The case concerned a man who developed a relationship with an employee at a convenience store in Owatonna. After being rebuffed by her, he became a regular customer at the store, staring at the employee and subsequently encountered her outside of the store and tried to get into her car when she was trying to leave and then parked his car behind hers and blocked her while staring at her from his vehicle. The incidents led to charges of gross misdemeanor harassment stalking in violation of Minn. Stat. sec. 609.749, as well as an amended count of disorderly conduct, which resulted in conviction by a Steele County District Court jury on both counts.

The appeal on grounds of insufficient evidence, necessitated “painstaking” analysis of the record to determine whether there was sufficient evidence for the jury to convict. There was in this case, because the offensive behavior violated the provision of the stalking statute that bars harassment, which is defined as intentional conduct that the participant knows, or has reason to know, would cause the victim to feel “frightened, threatened, oppressed, persecuted or intimidated,” and does in fact have this effect. The woman who was the subject of the defendant’s attention was “frantic, hysterical and rattled” after the confrontation in her vehicle, which was sufficient to satisfy the statute.

The case is similar to State v. Stockwell, where the defendant drove a vehicle “dangerously close” to the victim and then followed and accosted her. This type of “progressive and dangerous” behavior would cause the type of disturbance condemned by the statute.

Enough evidence

A few weeks later, the appellate court also found sufficient evidence to uphold convictions by Hennepin County District Court of aggravated stalking and disorderly conduct in State v. Bolton.

The defendant made four threatening remarks to probation officers while awaiting sentencing by a domestic assault conviction. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 28 months imprisonment.

The appellate court affirmed, finding the “sufficiency of evidence” to support aggravated stalking against an officer of the court under sec.609.749 subd. 3(a)(4). The threats were heard by others and were made because the officer had recommended that the defendant serve jail time for the offense. Because he “repeatedly shouted violent threats … while referencing the recommendation, “the defendant’s intent had to “foreseeable effect of frightening and intimidating” the officer. Challenges of judicial bias and ineffective counsel also were rejected in upholding the conviction and ensuing sentence.

These three cases typify the type of stalking offenses that often lead to prosecution and, when prosecuted, usually lead to convictions in Minnesota.

Originially published in the March 25, 2013 edition of Minnesota Lawyer.