Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
Dismissing, then refiling criminal charge does not violate six-month window
Over the objections of three dissenting justices, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a man’s right to a speedy trial was not violated when prosecutors dismissed, then later refiled criminal charges against him. (Read the ruling here.)
Normally, Minnesota statute requires that untried charges go to trial within six months after the court receives a speedy-trial request. If that doesn’t happen, the District Court must to dismiss the complaint with prejudice.
But Wednesday’s 4-3 ruling, written by Associate Justice Paul Thissen, affirms a Court of Appeals’ finding that appellant Roosevelt Mikell’s speedy-trial rights were not violated, even though his trial took place 15 months after his speed-trial request.
In its unpublished opinion of May 26, 2020, the Court of Appeals found Mikell was unharmed by the delay. That’s because, in the intervening period, the charge against Mikell was dismissed, and was only later refiled. Because no case was pending during the interim, the time gap cannot be counted against Mikell’s statutory speedy-trial window, the Court of Appeals found.
That panel found no evidence suggesting prosecutors acted in bad faith by dismissing and later refiling the charge, which stemmed Mikell’s arrest for domestic assault.
The Court of Appeals cited three reason for its findings.
First, while three of the four constitutional speedy-trial tests under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 Barker v. Wingo precedent weigh against the state, a fourth—whether the delay prejudiced Mikell—was moot and therefore weighed against Mikell. His related argument that the delay threatened a witness’ availability was “speculative,” that court found.
Second, the Court of Appeals ruled that Mikell’s rights under the state’s Uniform Mandatory Disposition of Detainers Act (UMMDA; Minn. Stat. § 629.292) were not violated—even though it acknowledged that Mikell’s delayed trial did violate the statute’s text. The Court of Appeals reached its result, its opinion says, because Mikell had failed to clear all the Barker hurdles.
Finally, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Hennepin County District Court did not abuse its discretion by denying Mikell’s motion to dismiss under Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 30.02. Nor did the state act in bad faith by dismissing and refiling the charge, the Court of Appeals found.
Though the Supreme Court majority’s opinion Wednesday reaches the same conclusions.
Because the criminal charges against Mikell were no longer pending after Hennepin County prosecutors dismissed the original UMDDA complaint, justices ruled, the state did not violate Mikell’s legal right to a timely and final disposition.
“We conclude that the UMDDA provides a remedy only when an untried complaint remains pending against the prisoner,” Thissen writes.
“In other words,” he adds, “once the state dismissed the pending complaint, Mikell no longer enjoyed a right to disposition of that complaint under the statute. Consequently, the state did not violate Mikell’s rights under the UMDDA.”
Facts of the case
Mikell was charged with domestic assault on June 6, 2017, and a no-contact order was issued the next day.
While in jail, the majority’s 42-page opinion indicates, Mikell arranged to have another inmate call the alleged assault victim twice. Both times the other inmate handed the phone over to Mikell, who began speaking to the victim. The victim hung up both times.
On Aug. 18, 2017, Mikell was charged with violating the state’s Domestic Abuse No Contact Order (DANCO) law. He made his first speedy-trial demand on that charge three days later.
A jury found him guilty of domestic assault on Aug. 25, and Mikell received a 60-month prison sentence. During the hearing that day, Mikell reminded the court of his speedy-trial request on the DANCO charge.
A trial on that matter was later set for Nov. 13, 2017. But on the day it was to begin, the state dismissed the charge.
On Sept. 14, 2018, the Court of Appeals reversed Mikell’s domestic assault conviction, finding that Hennepin County District Court Judge Fred Karasov failed to secure a sufficient waiver of Mikell’s right to counsel. The appellate court remanded the case for new trial.
On Oct. 25, after Mikell refused to plead to the assault charge, prosecutors refiled the DANCO complaint. Though the charges were filed under a new file number, they were identical to the ones that earlier had been dismissed.
Mikell filed a motion for dismissal, but the trial judge denied it. On Jan. 18, 2019, following a stipulated-facts trial, Mikell was found guilty of DANCO violations and sentenced to two concurrent 30-month sentences.
As it turned out, the domestic assault case was never retried.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s findings. The case was then ported over to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on Jan. 11.
A narrow issue
To Thissen, the issue presented was a narrow one: “Did the state violate Mikell’s UMDDA right to a final disposition of his pending DANCO charges by dismissing and then later refiling those charges more than six months after Mikell’s request?”
The answer: No, the majority found.
In part, the majority ruled that the UMMDA statute is ambiguous because of the way its first section interacts with its third.
Subdivision 1 states, in part, that anyone incarcerated in the state:
“… may request final disposition of any untried indictment or complaint pending against the person…” [Emphasis in Thissen’s opinion.]
To Thissen and the other three justices in the majority, that part of the statute’s plain language suggests that the relevant request at issue is one for final disposition of an untried indictment on a pending complaint.
“But once a complaint is dismissed—and thus no longer ‘pending’—there is no further ‘final disposition’ for a prisoner to secure and there is nothing to bring to trial within six months,” Thissen writes.
In fact, dismissal reasonably means that a disposition has occurred, he adds.
Subdivision 3 of the law then says:
“Within six months after the receipt of the request and certificate by the court and prosecuting attorney, or within such additional time as the court for good cause shown in open court may grant … the indictment or information shall be brought to trial. … If, after such a request, the indictment or information is not brought to trial within that period, no court of this state shall any longer have jurisdiction thereof … and the court shall dismiss it with prejudice.” [Emphasis in original.]
The majority finds ambiguity there.
On one hand, Thissen writes, Subdivision 1 provides that the relevant “request” is for final disposition of charges pending against a prisoner. That might reasonably be read to establish a right to disposition only when charges are pending, he said.
On the other hand, Subdivision 3 imposes a six-month requirement. That supports a reasonable reading that the state must rigidly adhere to that six-month window once a speedy-trial request is made, “or risk forfeiting its ability to ever bring the charges to trial.”
What UMDDA never does, Thissen finds, is account for what happens when the state dismisses a pending complaint after the speedy-trial request is received. And because the two sections working together allow for different conclusions, he writes, the statute is ambiguous and needs interpretation.
After applying the canons of construction to resolve the ambiguity, the majority concludes that the UMDDA law’s purpose—promptly disposing of untried charges to prevent restrictions on rehabilitation programming, recreational interests or other privileges while a prisoner is incarcerated—is not implicated in Mikell’s case.
“Shortly after the state received Mikell’s UMDDA request,” Thissen writes, “it dismissed the pending DANCO charges in the interests of justice, principally because it had secured a conviction on Mikell’s domestic assault charge.”
For the balance of the six-month period following his speedy-trial request—a period that ended on May 6, 2018—Mikell faced no DANCO charges or otherwise has his privileges or interests inhibited. Nor was there any indication at that point that the charges would ever be refiled, Thissen writes.
The state only chose to renew the charges after Mikell’s domestic-assault conviction got overturned and he refused a plea offer to that charge. He can’t now argue that he experienced anxiety or loss of certain privileges during the period after the dismissal of the DANCO case, Thissen writes, because at that point, the case was no longer being pursued.
“In other words, the state’s dismissal of those charges fulfilled the principal purpose of the UMDDA: ensuring that Mikell did not suffer any negative consequences from the pending charges while detained,” the justice writes.
Were the court to adopt Mikell’s interpretation, requiring that untried charges go to trial after six months irrespective of any intervening dismissal for fear of losing that option forever, the very population that UMDDA aims to aid could be injured instead, Thissen writes.
“For example,” his opinion states, “such a rule would likely incentivize the state to take more cases to trial lest it otherwise lose the opportunity to do so in the future.”
Alternatively, he continues, Mikell’s proposed rule could encourage prosecutors to seek more good-cause findings from District Court judges, keeping criminal charges pending beyond the six-month window.
“Thus, adopting Mikell’s interpretation of the UMDDA would contravene the statute’s primary purpose and the intent of the Legislature,” Thissen writes.
Examining both federal and state precedent—including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 U.S. v. MacDonald ruling, its 1986 U.S. v. Loud Hawk decision and the state Supreme Court’s 2009 State v. Hurd case, in addition to Barker—buttresses those findings, according to Thissen.
Based on those precedents, Thissen’s opinion finds, the constitutional right to a speedy trial has no application after the government, when acting in good faith, formally drops charges.
There is nothing in the Mikell case record revealing any such prosecutorial machinations, Thissen finds. Nor did the District Court did not abuse its discretion when it made that finding, he adds.
“When considered together, MacDonald and Loud Hawk, along with Hurd, teach us when the state dismisses charges and later refiles those charges, we need not consider the period between dismissal and refiling when assessing whether the defendant was deprived of his right to a speedy trial,” he writes.
The only exception, he adds, could arise where the state intentionally manipulates the system and engages in “legal maneuvering” to avoid a constitutionally prompt trial. But that didn’t happen here, the majority found.
Anderson’s seven-page seven dissent argues that the statute is not ambiguous. Rather, he finds, it clearly requires the state to bring any untried charges to trial within six months—barring only specific, enumerated exceptions.
The majority’s interpretation, Anderson finds, wipes out the state’s obligation to bring charges to trial within six months—all prosecutors need do is dismiss and refile charges later. The plain language of statute does not support that, he writes.
While Anderson agrees the statute does not expressly explain should what happen when charges are dismissed, it lays out specific scenarios in which the six-month window does not apply—for instance, when a judge extends the period for good cause.
“Presumably, if the legislature had also intended for a request under the statute to void automatically if the prisoner’s untried complaint was dismissed, as the court interprets the statute,” Anderson writes, “it would have included language to that effect, creating an appropriate exception.”
In the absence of that legislative exception, he adds, “I disagree with the court’s decision to read one into the statute.”
The majority misreads the law, Anderson’s dissent contends, when it seizes on the word “pending” to conclude the statute is ambiguous and might be read, as a whole, to void a prisoner’s right to final disposition of untried charges.
In fact, according to Anderson, the statute’s first section does nothing more than establish when a prisoner may make a speedy trial request.
The third section, rather than interacting with the first in some fuzzy way, simply mandates how the state should proceed, he finds. The law does not, Anderson adds, require that a complaint remain pending throughout the entire six-month period.
“Because the plain language of the UMDDA unambiguously requires the state to bring an untried complaint to trial within six months following receipt of a request, we need not look beyond the text of the statute, as the court does,” he writes.
“Consequently,” he concludes, “I would reverse the court of appeals and vacate Mikell’s conviction.”