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Rep Accuses Duluth Police of Violating Data Practices Act following Gauthier Arrest

24 Aug

The Duluth News Tribune and the Strib are both reporting on the investigation by a Minnesota House subcommittee into the Duluth Police Department’s record-keeping system in the wake of the Kerry Gauthier investigation. Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who chairs the house subcommittee on data practices, said in a letter to Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay that the department “appears to have violated the law in order to avoid disclosing public data” in the case.

Scott’s letter said the department “twice failed to comply with requests for public data related to the Gauthier investigation.”

According the the News Tribune, Duluth police said the investigation on Gauthier was categorized in its database as high-profile, meaning that only a few officers in the department knew about it and could see the information. Thus, when the News Tribune initially asked for information on the case, the department responded that none existed. At that time, the officers who did the search didn’t have access to that case, Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser said.

In her letter to Ramsay, Scott said maintaining public data on “high-profile” cases and keeping those cases separated from others was “highly inappropriate and a clear violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.”

“By restricting access to public data related (to) incidents involving ‘high profile’ individuals, the Duluth Police Department has created two sets of rules for handling public data,” Scott wrote. “For regular people, requests for data will be processed according to the rules of Chapter 13. For ‘high-profile’ people, the police will decide which data to release and when to release it.”

Scott’s letter can be viewed here. The full text of the MGDPA can be viewed here.

Another Locked Courtroom Deemed Permissible

15 Aug

The Minnesota Court of Appeals released an unpublished opinion on August 13 stating, among other things, that a “district court’s closing of the courtroom door during its final charge to the jury did not implicate [the defendant’s] right to a public trial.”

The opinion, State v. Cook, is another example of a closed courtroom (albeit only during jury instructions) during a portion of a criminal jury trial in Minnesota being upheld by the state’s appellate courts. In the Cook opinion, the court cited a Minnesota Supreme Court opinion from July 2012 for the principle that “a district court does not implicate a defendant’s right to a public trial when the court locks the courtroom doors during jury instructions; the court never clears the courtroom of all spectators; the court tells the people in the courtroom that they are welcome to stay; the court keeps the trial open to the public and press already in the courtroom; the court does not order the removal of any member of the public, the press, or the defendant’s family; and the jury instructions do not comprise a proportionately large portion of the trial proceedings.”

According to the opinion, the closed portion comprised 40 pages of the 2000-page transcript of the trial.

 

Court of Appeals Revisits the Role of Subcontractors under the MGDPA

23 Jul

On July 10, the Associated Press previewed an oral argument that took place before the Minnesota Court of Appeals on July 11, pertaining to a case between The Timberjay, a newspaper based in Ely, Minnesota, and Johnson Controls, Inc. The newspaper is seeking a copy of a subcontract Johnson Controls made with Architectural Resources, Inc., a Minnesota architectural and engineering firm. The crux of the case is whether a portion of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. 13.05 subd. 11, applies to the subcontract in question. The statute provides, in part:

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“If a government entity enters into a contract with a private person to perform any of its functions, the government entity shall include in the contract terms that make it clear that all of the data created, collected, received, stored, used, maintained, or disseminated by the private person in performing those functions is subject to the requirements of this chapter and that the private person must comply with those requirements as if it were a government entity.”

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An initial administrative hearing resulted in a victory for Johnson, but the decision was subsequently reversed by a chief administrative law judge. The matter was then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. For more background on the case, see this excellent 2011 entry in Media Law Minnesota.

Minnesota Supreme Court: Locked Courtroom Didn’t Violate Right to Public Trial

23 Jul

I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Back on July 3, the Minnesota Supreme Court held, among other things, that locking the courtroom doors during jury instructions didn’t violate the accused’s  right to a public trial.

The appeal arose from the case of Jerrell Brown, who was convicted in 2010 of aiding and abetting first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang and sentenced to life in prison. The Supreme Court relayed the courtroom closure, instigated by the now-retired Hennepin County Judge Warren R. Sagstuen, as follows:

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“Following closing arguments but before giving jury instructions, the trial court ordered that the courtroom door be locked for the duration of jury instructions. In explaining the situation, the judge stated on the record:

‘For the benefit of those in the back. I am about to begin giving jury instructions. While that is going on the courtroom is going to be locked and people are not going to be allowed to go in and out.
So, if anybody has to leave, now would be the time. You are welcome to s[t]ay. But I just want to make sure that everybody knows that the courtroom is going to be locked. We are all good? Deputy?’

Once the courtroom door was locked, no spectators were let in or out during the jury instructions, but no spectators who were in the courtroom at the time jury instructions began were forced to leave. At the close of the instructions, the trial court handed out copies of the jury instructions and sent the jury to deliberate.”

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In his majority opinion, Page wrote that “Both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6, of the Minnesota Constitution provide that ‘the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial,'” but that since the courtroom was never cleared of all spectators, and because the trial remained open to the public and press already in the courtroom, and because “the jury instructions did not comprise a proportionately large portion of the trial proceedings,” the closure was not Constitutionally significant.

Page tempered his opinion by stating that trial courts should utilize court closure “carefully and sparingly.”

In a dissent that was joined by Justice Paul H. Anderson, Justice Helen Meyer disagreed with the majority on the closure, stating that “the trial court’s decision to close and lock the courtroom doors during jury instructions contravened the purposes of the public trial guarantee” and justified greater scrutiny than was undertaken by the majority. Justice Meyer cited United States Supreme Court precedence in stating that “The right to a public trial is not only for the accused, but also the public and the press, and is a fundamental part of Anglo-American jurisprudence.”

The opinion can be found here. MPR’s Bob Collins gives a short recap here.

Court of Appeals Roundup

2 Jul

The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued two unpublished opinions that included some speech related tidbits today.

In In the Matter of the Professional Engineering License Application of Michael P. Opela, Sr., Michael Opela appealed an administrative decision denying his application for state licensure as a professional engineer. As part of his appeal, he requested that the court “seal his application and the record of the administrative proceedings to protect his privacy and reputation.” The Court of Appeals declined to seal the record in the case, citing portions of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and stating that “Case records on appeal are presumed public, absent several enumerated exceptions that are not applicable here.” Score one for public access to court records, albeit at the expense of Mr. Opela.

In  Timothy Jirak v. Philip Eichten, et al., an intra-family estate dispute, the court upheld, among other things, the plaintiff’s claim of defamation per se. The district court awarded the plaintiff $120,000. The bright side, for adamant free speech supporters, would be that the court declined to award  attorneys’ fees or punitive damages. The Court of Appeals cited Minn. Stat. 549.20, which states that punitive damages are permitted “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”

Proposed Legislation Would Make More Government Employee Buyouts Public

24 Apr

Twin Cities station KSTP reported yesterday night on a proposed bill, H.F. 2647, in the Minnesota legislature that would make public, with certain limitations, “the complete terms of any agreement settling any dispute arising out of an employment relationship, including a buyout agreement … except that the agreement must include all of the specific reasons for the agreement if it involves the payment of more than $10,000 of public money.” (The underlined text indicates additions to the existing language of Minn Stat. 13.43.) The bill also expands the list of public employees to which such disclosure would apply.

The bill was passed unanimously in the Minnesota House on April 16, but on April 20th the bill was “laid on the table” in the Senate after a motion by Sen. Dan Hall (R-Burnsville). I’m not totally sure what “laid on the table” means, but nothing has happened to the bill since the aforementioned laying out.

We’ll keep you posted.

Speedy links for Monday:

24 Apr

Here’s a few tidbits in the news that are at lest tangentially related to free speech issues:

Some interesting reporting in the Duluth News Tribune about city and county pension plans, information about which was presumably obtained through the Minnesota Data Practices Act. It’s nice to see this kind of information being uncovered (not by the paper, but by the Illinois-based Taxpayers United of America), but proponents of the public pension plan seem to think that the TUoA didn’t provide a particularly comprehensive report. Of course, we here at the Void don’t care about things like entitlement reform or taxes (blech), we just thought the transparency brought to bear on the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota is worth commenting on…

The Strib, the PiPress and MPR all reported on the decision by a federal administrative law judge that a local Jimmy John’s franchisee violated the labor rights of six former employees when it fired them for hanging up posters  near Jimmy John’s  restaurants protesting the restaurants’ sick leave policy. I couldn’t find a written version of Judge Arthur Amchan, but according to the Strib, Amchan “ruled that the posters were protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act.” Again, no position on the labor issues, but the term “protected speech” (which as far as I know is solely Mike Hughlett‘s term, not necessarily Judge Amchan’s) is interesting to see in the context of the non-government employer-employee relationship.

***Update on 4-26-12*** The excellent Minnesota Employer blog, written by attorneys from the Minneapolis law firm Briggs and Morgan, has some additional – not necessarily objective – commentary on the case, and kindly included a link to the decision. Go educate yourself.

Rave on….