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Halloween history: spending, scares and suits

“The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.” 

Paula Corran, October Dreams (2000)

Americans are expected to spend more than $7 billion within the next week on Halloween costumes, decorations, pumpkins candy and other tricks and treats.  This amounts to an average of about $75 per person for the 50 percent of the population in Minnesota and the rest of the country who participate in the event.

What began as a pagan celebration has evolved, or some might say devolved, into an annual American ritual on the last day of October, next Monday.

Minnesota holds a permanent place in the lore of Halloween.  In 1937, Anoka was proclaimed, by a resolution of the U.S. Congress, no less, as the “Halloween Capital of the World.”  The description was attributable to the community hosting its own Halloween celebration in 1920, the first official one in the country, as a means of diffusing children from engaging in unsupervised pranks.  The tradition now continues with a variety of activities throughout the month, ranging from football games to a pair of parades.

Fast forward nearly a century and Minnesota has another Halloween-related distinction. Although not the origin of Zombie partying, Minneapolis made it into the Guinness book of World Records in 2014 for hosting the world’s largest gathering of revelers in zombie costumes at the zombie pub crawl in the downtown warehouse district, and this year’s event last weekend also was well-attended by zombie wannabes getting ready for the hallowed evening next Monday.

These examples of largesse and lunacy continue with growing traction associated with Halloween and Minnesota litigation.

Scary statutes

Anoka is not the only city in Minnesota that gives official recognition to Halloween.  Some communities, including Taylor’s Falls and Wyoming, prohibit registered sex offenders from participating “in a holiday event involving children under 18 years of age, such as distributing candy or other items to children on Halloween …”  City of Taylor’s Falls, Ordinance § 540.003 subd. 2; City of Wyoming, Ordinance No. 04-04-06 § 16.72(2). The measure tracks the law in states, such as New Jersey, which prohibit registered sex offenders from giving out Halloween candy.

An antiquated ordinance in St. Paul, § 280.03, formerly prohibited people from appearing in costume reflecting “a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” The measure forbade cross-dressing on Halloween, a proscription that has been since repealed.  Federal law also recognizes Halloween, although not as a formal holiday.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, 15 U.S. § 260a, Daylight Savings Time will be extended this year to two weeks hence, the first Sunday in November, primarily to provide trick-or-treaters with more light and, therefore, more safety from traffic accidents.  The measure is a recognition that children pedestrian deaths occur more frequently on Halloween than any other night.

Criminal capers

Because it is characterized by mischief, Halloween, not surprisingly, has ignited criminal litigation in Minnesota.  Anoka, the self-proclaimed mecca of Halloween, has been the site of several of these cases.

In State v. Mangan, 1999 WL 639246 (Minn. App. 1999) (unpublished), a candidate for public office was convicted in Anoka County District Court for failure to obey a police order when he repeatedly marched into the street during the city’s Halloween parade, despite a prohibition by the parade committee barring politicians from participating in the event.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the measure does not constitute a violation of freedom of expression because it was content-neutral and enforceable against all politicians.  Because the ordinance was valid, the candidate’s disobedience was impermissible.

A Halloween block party at a bar in Anoka led to a conviction for fourth degree assault of a police officer in State v. Steenerson, 2000 WL 943564 (Minn. App. 2000) (unpublished).  An angry bar patron assaulted a police officer, who ordered him to get rid of a beer he was drinking on a public street near the facility.

The Anoka County District Court found him guilty, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  It reasoned that the officer, although working in a private capacity, was acting in accordance with his lawful duties.

A Halloween party that went awry resulted in conviction of attempted second-degree murder in State v. Northrup, 2007 WL 446617 (Minn. App. 2007) (unpublished).  The victim wandered into a home where the festivities were breaking up and was struck with a metal pipe and then stomped and kicked in the head by the homeowner, who had earlier told him to leave the premises.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction by the Anoka County District Court, holding that the evidence that the appellant assaulted the victim was sufficient to support the attempted second-degree murder conviction.

Another Halloween attempted murder conviction for a shooting was upheld in State v. Melton, 1993 WL 207835 (Minn. App. 1993) (unpublished).  Following a dispute with his ex-wife over who would take the children trick-or-treating, a man shot and seriously injured his brother, who was in a relationship with the ex-wife.  The appellate court upheld the conviction of the Hennepin County District Court, finding premeditated intent to kill either the brother or ex-wife and lack of self-defense because the assailant quit his job earlier in the day, packed his personal belongings, and wrote a letter contemplating murder and suicide before the Halloween incident occurred.

The confession of a Halloween robber, dressed in a cat burglar costume, who pointed a toy gun at kids and took their candy was suppressed in State v. Langhorst, 2000 WL 1577096 (Minn. App. 2000) (unpublished).  After the arrest, two officers attempted to read the suspect his Miranda rights, but he did not understand them or the Miranda procedure.  The Scott County District Court suppressed the confession on grounds that the state was unable to prove by preponderance of the evidence that he waived his right against self-incrimination.  The appellate court affirmed, holding that the cat burglar’s waiver of his Miranda rights was not knowingly made, as reflected in his request to have his rights clarified.

Injury issues

Personal injury cases also have arisen in connection with Halloween-related events.

In Luke v. City of Anoka, 277 Minn. 1, 151 N.W.2d 429 (Minn. 1967), a driver suffered a fatal heart attack and his automobile struck several people who were watching a children’s Halloween parade in Anoka.  A suit was brought against the driver’s estate, the city and non-profit organization that financed the event.

An Anoka County District Court jury found only the city liable, but the trial judge entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) in favor of the city and denied a new trial against the estate of the automobile driver, and the non-profit agency.  The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that neither the city nor the non-profit group was liable because the accident was not foreseeable.  The city also was exonerated on grounds of official immunity from tort liability.

But a claimant was successful in a suit against the City of St. Paul and the State of Minnesota for injuries sustained when snow from an overpass hit a driver’s windshield several days after the huge Halloween evening blizzard of 1991 in Rivard v. State, 1995 WL 238921 (Minn. App. 1995) (unpublished).  The Ramsey County District Court found the city negligent for plowing snow onto the sidewalk of the overpass, which then seeped through a chain link fence and fell on a driver’s car.  The appellate court affirmed, rejecting an immunity claim because the city was acting in a ministerial capacity in snow plowing, rather than exercising discretion.  The defense’s contention that smashed pumpkins were thrown by someone over the overpass also was not persuasive.

An intoxicated homeowner who became drunk after taking her kids trick-or-treating on Halloween was not liable for injuries suffered by a police officer who aiding the inebriated woman in Randelin v. Hillstrom, 1995 WL 238855 (Minn. App. 1995) (unpublished).  The incident occurred when a mother began drinking after taking her children trick-or-treating.  While driving home, she abandoned her vehicle, forcing officers to come to her house, where they found her visibly drunk and sick.  They escorted her to her bathroom, but she fell in the process, injuring an officer who tried to catch her while she was falling and injured his shoulder.

The Carlton County District Court granted summary judgment to the beleaguered homeowner, finding that she was not negligent.  The appellate court affirmed, on grounds that the homeowner could not have anticipated, when she became intoxicated, that the police officer would be injured in her home while trying to stop her fall.  Because the homeowner “could not have foreseen that her intoxication would lead to the obviously unusual events that followed at her home,” she was not liable for the officer’s ensuing harm.

Halloween harassment

A woman successfully sued her supervisor and employer for sexual harassment arising out of a work Halloween party in Devane v. Sears Home Improvement Products, Inc., 2003 WL 22999363 (Minn. App. 2003) (unpublished).  The supervisor arranged a “skin to win” Halloween contest giving a 25-inch color television for the person who had the “most sexy” costume and showed parts of his or her body.  The employee came to the party wearing a doctor’s costume, which prompted the supervisor to point to his groin, unbuckle his pants, and gesture to the costumed employee to touch his private parts.

The Hennepin County District Court found in favor of the claimant, awarding $ 758,500 for compensatory and punitive damages, in attorney’s fees and a civil penalty for the employer.    The appellate court affirmed, holding that the District Court properly found a hostile work environment, and the award of damage was appropriate.

Visitation variation

A post-divorce effort to modify visitation rights for various holidays, including Halloween, failed in Anderson v. Archer, 510 N.W.2d 1 (Minn. App. 1993).  The mother sought to change the visitation schedule, which limited the husband to weekly visits because of his residency in California, although he later moved to Minnesota.  The Anoka County District Court allowed the father visitation on alternating weekends, two evenings a week, six weeks during the summer and alternating holidays.  The father appealed, claiming the visitation decree was ambiguous.

The Court of Appeals upheld the court’s decision in modifying and implementing the visitation schedule, reasoning that the trial court’s modification was necessary to maintain the children’s relationship with the mother.  But a concurrence questioned alternating holidays for visitation because the custodial home should be the place for visitation on birthdays and some other celebratory events, including Halloween.

Halloween usually is an enjoyable event for children and adults alike.  But, as these cases illustrate, courts are often called upon to treat the tricky events that occur on this special day.

Happy Halloween!


Spending in U.S. on various holidays

  • Christmas:  $830 billion
  • Valentine’s Day:  $8.9 billion
  • Halloween:  $7 billion
  • July 4:  $6.8 billion
  • New Year’s Eve:  $3 billion

U.S. Supreme Court hearings on Halloween

  • Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 15-497:  what was the procedural requirements for filing suit for disabled students under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act 29 U.S.C. § 504.
  • Star Athletes v. Varsity Brands, No. 15-866:  What are the standards for copyright protection for a “useful article” under the copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101?


As published in Minnesota Lawyer.