Minnesota’s Supreme Court justices don’t expect to be treated to a jazz band playing “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses before hearing arguments in a complex case.
But Monday’s courtroom was the auditorium at Champlin Park High School in Brooklyn Park, with the justices and attorneys doing their thing on a brightly lit stage as part of a biannual working field trip to a Minnesota school.
More than 700 students packed in to hear the case of Daniel Garcia-Mendoza, then hit up the justices with questions.
The case was labyrinthine but important. The court’s eventual decision could affect the rights of people whose property is forfeited during civil cases.
It began in March 2012, when a rookie police officer pulled over Garcia-Mendoza in Minneapolis in a stop later found to be illegal. He was ticketed for not having a driver’s license, and his sport-utility vehicle was searched and towed without his consent. During the search, officers found and seized 8 ounces of methamphetamine and $611.
Federal investigators then looked into Garcia-Mendoza’s dealings, ultimately charging him with selling drugs. Hennepin County District Court dropped its charges, and in a federal plea deal, he pleaded guilty to one count unrelated to the arrest in Minneapolis. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
When Garcia-Mendoza returned to district court to challenge the seizure of his cash and property, the judge said that although the traffic stop was unconstitutional, the forfeiture should stand because he had agreed to it in his federal plea deal.
The case then went to the state Appeals Court. There, Garcia-Mendoza’s attorney argued that because the stop was illegal, law enforcement shouldn’t have been able to seize the property. He cited a legal principle called the exclusionary rule, which holds that unconstitutionally seized evidence can’t be admitted in court.
The Appeals Court disagreed, saying the rule applies only to criminal, not civil proceedings such as Garcia-Mendoza’s forfeiture case.
In support of Garcia-Mendoza, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota argued that the exclusionary rule should apply in civil proceedings to counteract “the unfortunate perverse incentives” that prey on law enforcement when a profit motive is injected into police seizure of private property. The ACLU cited the notorious case of the Metro Gang Strike Force, which repeatedly abused its forfeiture authority from 2005 to 2009 in violation of the constitutional rights of Minnesotans.
If a person doesn’t contest a forfeiture within 60 days, the arresting law enforcement agency is entitled to all cash and profits from property. When contested, the percentage of profits varies.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill last week that changed state forfeiture law to say that the government can take property only if it wins a criminal conviction.
Attorney Kirk Anderson, who represented Garcia-Mendoza at Monday’s hearing, said that when the state Supreme Court rules on the case, its decision will have broad implications.
As the students listened, the justices peppered Anderson with questions. Justice David Lillehaug said the Minnesota County Attorneys Association was concerned that if the exclusionary rule is applied in civil forfeitures, it could be used in other civil proceedings such as child protection orders and civil commitments of sexually dangerous people.
“Can a line be drawn?” he asked.
The students’ turn
The mood lightened when the hearing ended. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea praised the attorneys and thanked them for “coming along on this roadshow.”
Then the students got to ask questions.
The justices introduced themselves before taking questions, talking about how small their high schools were compared to sprawling Champlin Park and about trying to convince one justice’s child not to become an attorney. The crowd whooped when Justice Wilhelmina Wright said she graduated from Harvard Law School.
Justice Alan Page told the students that being on the state Supreme Court is a great job. “I love what I do, grappling with complex cases,” he said. He said the greatest change he’s seen in the legal world over the years has been the dramatic increase in the number of female and minority attorneys.
Another student wondered whether it made a difference to the justices how a lawyer presents a case. Justice Barry Anderson said no, adding that an attorney’s great stage performance is unlikely to affect the outcome of a case.
Lillehaug commented on the weighty responsibility justices bear when they write rulings that could be viewed and cited by lawyers for the next 100 years.
And Wright talked about potential roadblocks in a person’s legal career, such as low expectations from others. “But you create your own destiny,” she said. That met with loud applause.
But the exchanges weren’t all serious. On a comical note, Page joked that he hoped playing for the Minnesota Vikings didn’t hurt him when he ran for election to the state Supreme Court.