Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Minnesota DWI Lawyer Blogs on Minnesota DWI: This Week's Featured Minnesota DWI Case

The Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Menzie, (decided December 1, 2014, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished) which stands for the proposition that a prosecutor can say just about anything at trial and get away with it!

In Menzie, the defendant testified in his own defense at his DWI trial.  He testified that he was not impaired at the time of his arrest as he had only consumed two drinks. He also admitted having a felony conviction within the past ten years and stated that all of his convictions were the result of "getting harassed by the police".

The prosecutor then asked the defendant if he recalled an encounter with the police on September 18, 2011 and whether he recalled "leaving after two days of a jury trial" in a criminal case resulting from that encounter. The defendant denied any recollection of these events.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor referenced Menzie's purported flight from previous court hearings three times, and claimed the defendant had a DWI refusal conviction from 2000, including an implication that the allegations could be proved by reference to information in official records.  Defense counsel did not object to any of these references.

On appeal, Menzie claimed that the prosecutor's repeated questioning and references during closing arguments to the allegation that Menzie had fled from a previous prosecution was plain error.  The Court of Appeals agreed (to a point) stating:

"Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person to show that the person acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion." State v. Ness, 707 N.W.2d 676, 685 (Minn. 2006) (citing Minn. R. Evid. 404(b)). "Further, such evidence may not be introduced if its probative value is substantially outweighed by its tendency to unfairly prejudice the factfinder." Id. (citing Minn. R. Evid. 403). When the state seeks to introduce prior-bad-acts evidence, it must provide notice, "clearly indicate what the evidence will be offered to prove," show "clear and convincing evidence that the defendant participated in the prior act," demonstrate that the evidence is "relevant and material to the state's case," and the district court must determine that the probative value of the evidence is not "outweighed by its potential prejudice to the defendant." Id. at 686.

The prosecutor here met none of the requirements for introducing evidence that Menzie had fled from a prior prosecution. He provided no notice of an intention to introduce evidence of Menzie's purported flight, he did not explain the purpose of the evidence or show how such evidence would be relevant to the state's case, and he produced no evidence at all—let alone clear and convincing evidence—to counter Menzie's denials. In the absence of evidence, the prosecutor resorted to insinuations of evidence, implying that proof could be found in state databases by typing in Menzie's name."

But instead of reversing the conviction for misconduct, the Minnesota Court of Appeals goes on to hold, "We find it implausible that the prosecutor's errors affected the verdict...as the evidence against Menzie was overwhelming.  The trooper conducted a proper stop after observing Menzie weaving. The trooper obtained a consensual breath sample indicating that Menzie was under the influence of alcohol. And Menzie's driving record showed three prior alcohol-related license revocations. These facts alone support each of the elements of Menzie's conviction, and it is unlikely that the prosecutor's improper "digs" to Menzie's purported flight or his isolated reference to a 2000 test-refusal conviction had any effect on the jury's deliberations. We therefore conclude that the prosecutor's misconduct did not affect the verdict, and we decline to reverse Menzie's conviction."

Moral of the Story: It is a prosecutor's duty to do justice.  But if he doesn't, the court won't hold him accountable.