The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected a Fridley woman's claim that her child abuse conviction should be thrown out because there was no proof that she physically hurt her 12-year-old daughter--despite shaving her head and forcing her to dress in a diaper as discipline for poor grades.
In an opinion released Tuesday, the Appeals Court said that a conviction for malicious punishment of a child does not require proof of bodily harm, and can include emotional or mental injury.
An Anoka County judge found the 39-year-old woman guilty of the single gross misdemeanor for the May 2012 incident, in which police were called by a neighbor to find the girl running wind sprints outside wearing only a diaper and a tank top with her head shaved while dozens of neighbors looked on. According to court records, the girl's mother, who the Star Tribune has not named to protect her daughter's identity, said she didn't understand what the problem was and that she "was simply disciplining her child by embarrassing her." The girl's 35-year-old stepfather added that the girl had been warned several times that she would be forced to have her head shaved and wear a diaper if she did not start listening in school and getting better grades.
The mother was sentenced to 90 days in jail and was ordered not to have contact with the girl. Her husband, who was convicted of the same count, received a six-month jail sentence.
The mother contended that the malicious punishment statute is constitutionally vague, and has been interpreted to apply to cases of "physical abuse" under previous court rulings. However, the statute prohibits acts that include "unreasonable force or cruel discipline that is excessive under the circumstances," Judge Edward Cleary wrote for the unanimous opinion. He added that the law has no language that requires proof of bodily harm for a conviction--only an upper limit to differientiate between gross misdemeanor and felony child abuse.
The Court also rejected the mother's argument that her conduct in forcing her daughter to run outside inhibits her freedom to act as a parent, comparing her actions to punishments such as "having a child cut off his Mohawk or making a child wear a shirt stating 'I stole from this store' at a place of business from which she had shoplifted."
Apples and oranges, Judge Cleary countered.
"The extreme nature of her conduct, which included shaving her 12-year-old daugher's head, forcing her to wear a tank top and diaper, and requiring her to run around outside in front of a crowd of people that included classmates and adults, is demonstrated by the reception this humiliating spectacle received--the gathering of a large audience and muiltiple 911 calls to report the incident." he wrote. "A person of ordinary intelligence would be on notice that such an act constituted cruel discipline that was excessive under the circumstances."
The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear the case of a Monticello woman whose driver's license was revoked after she drove drunk to escape an abusive husband.
Jennifer Axelberg, 39, is challenging the revocation in connection with a spring 2011 incident near Mora, which Axelberg's attorney, Ryan Pacyga, argued fell under the state's "necessity defense." The necessity defense is used in emergencies where the damage that could result from obeying the law outweighs the harm caused by breaking it. In this case, he said, it should also apply to the state's implied consent law.
Axelberg had sought shelter in her car parked outside a Kanabec County family cabin following a fight with her husband. Both had been drinking. When her husbanmd jumped ont he car and pounded on the windshield so hard it cracked, she drove less than a mile to a tavern to get help. There, she was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
Axelberg, whose blood-alcohol level registered 0.18 percent, pleaded guilty to careless driving. She reconciled with her husband, Jason, who pleaded guilty to his charges and testified on her behalf at the revocation hearing. Although Axelberg's yearlong revocation period is up, Pacyga said they will appeal the case on principle.
Axelberg pleaded guilty to careless driving, but her license was revocked in a separate action. Although the driving offense is considered a criminal matter, the revocation is a civil matter under the implied consent law.
A District Court Judge and the Minnesota Court of Appeals both sided against Axelberg. District Judge Stoney HIljus reasoned that the the criminal-based necessity defense can't be used in a civil action, and that "the episode of domestic violence here is outweighed by the potential hazards (Axelberg) created for the public when she drove her vehicle while intoxicated."
The Appeals Court said in June that if the necessity defense is applicable, it is up to the Legislature to modify the statute to say so.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court will likely take place in a few months.