In a rare move, the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday overturned a lighter-than-recommended sentence given last year to Bradley Schnickel, the former Minneapolis police officer who used social media to lure adolescent girls into sexual encounters.
Schnickel, now 34, pleaded guilty in May 2014 to three counts of criminal or attempted criminal sexual conduct and two counts of electronic solicitation of a minor. He agreed to a plea deal with the Anoka County attorney's office with the understanding that it would seek a nearly 12-year sentence. But Judge James Cunningham took a dramatic downward departure from state guidelines, which call for 102 to 142 months in such cases, and sentenced Schnickel to 2 ½ years in prison, with a lifetime conditional-release term.
The judge stated at the time that the sentences requested by the prosecution and Schnickel's attorney stood "in stark contrast to each other, and neither satisfies my sense of what is fair and what is just." He rejected the longer sentence because it "didn't take into account the work that this defendant has done to try to control these destructive urges and behaviors."
But in the 11-page ruling released Monday, the Court of Appeals said that a lower-court judge may depart from the sentencing guidelines only if there are substantial and compelling reasons to support departure. Cunningham used improper offender-related factors to support his departure, the court ruled. The main reason he gave for the departure from sentencing guidelines was Schnickel's amenability to probation, remorse and acceptance of responsibility.
Fred Bruno, Schnickel's attorney, had argued during sentencing that a lighter sentence was justified because of his client's mental impairment at the time of the crimes. He also said Schnickel didn't use force or a weapon in luring young girls into relationships.
But the Court of Appeals called those arguments unpersuasive.
The case will now be returned to Anoka County District Court for resentencing. Paul Young, head of the criminal division for the county attorney's office, said Monday that there is a sense of urgency to scheduling a resentencing hearing because Schnickel's release date from prison will otherwise come next month.
It's rare for such a sentence to be appealed, because judges have significant discretion in sentencing and higher courts rarely will overturn them, Young said.
He said his office believed that the court abused the sentencing guidelines. "When you get a sentence that is so out of bounds given the law and the facts, we felt the need to appeal," he said.
Many who were in the packed Anoka County courtroom last May, including Schnickel's victims and their families, were stunned when Cunningham sentenced him to less than one-fourth of the nearly 12-year sentence prosecutors had sought.
The lesser sentence was 30 months in prison, minus 197 days for time already served. With good behavior, his remaining prison time was reduced to less than 14 months.
A trail of damage
Anoka County authorities said that in Facebook and Skype conversations, Schnickel identified himself to middle- and high-school girls as "Brady Schmidt." He told girls that they were "cute and sexy" or "hot," and that he was attracted to girls as young as 12.
Authorities say Schnickel had 18 known victims, including two girls with whom he had sex, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old.
One victim, who was 13 when she met Schnickel, had threatened suicide and been hospitalized for mental health issues, her parents said in an impact statement read by Young at the sentencing. Another, who was 14 when she encountered Schnickel, lost her trust in people, her family said.
After listening to the impact statements at the sentencing, Schnickel told the court it was a "blessing" that he was caught, that he has "deep remorse for those I affected."
He had previously been sentenced in Hennepin County to a year in the workhouse after pleading guilty last summer to sending nude photos of himself to two teenage girls.
He was arrested in Anoka County in February 2013. He was fired from the Minneapolis police force at that time.
The Court of Appeals ruling remanded the case with no instructions.
"It's back to square one on the sentence," Bruno said. "I will be exploring all options for my client."