The state Court of Appeals has ruled that a southern Minnesota man mistakenly spent more than seven months in prison because he was wrongly convicted of drug possession under a Minnesota law whose amendment should have prevented the man’s arrest and incarceration.
The Appeals Court last week threw out the 2013 jury conviction of Ryan M. Drown, 32, of Waseca, for second- and third-degree drug possession in Blue Earth County District Court for having meth-tainted water in a bong.
The water in the bong totaled less than 4/10ths of an ounce. That’s well below the 4-ounce threshold that the law’s clarifying amendment set in 2011 as a requirement for such serious counts to be filed against him.
Based on the amount of meth in the bong found during a law enforcement search in May 2012, the most Drown could have been charged with was fifth-degree drug possession, which would not have led to his imprisonment.
But the misapplication of the law never came up in the courtroom by the judge or lawyers on either side during the trial in October 2013. The jurors convicted him, and in December 2013 Judge Bradley C. Walker sentenced Drown to 6½ years in prison, with about seven months credited for time served leading up to his trial.
The prosecutor, Chris Rovney, made no excuses Tuesday, saying the lawyers and the judge all “made a mistake, to be honest with you. We all just dropped the ball on that.”
Rovney said that he, defense attorney Bradley Peyton and Judge Walker had a bench conference during the trial about the amendment and “determined it was the proper charge.”
To this day, Rovney added, he’s at a loss to explain how the case proceeded. “I’m certainly not proud of it. We feel bad about it. We certainly don’t charge people to mess them up.”
Neither Peyton nor the judge was available to comment.
Drown was a state prisoner for seven months before his Appeals Court attorney, public defender Jenna Yauch-Erickson, caught the oversight and swiftly won his release in July 2014 pending the appeal.
“It’s possible they didn’t know there was a change in the law,” Yauch-Erickson said. “It’s possible they didn’t do the metric conversion correctly.”
Drown recalled Tuesday that his trial attorney mentioned the law’s revision to him shortly before proceedings began, but said, “It doesn’t apply in this situation. … That’s what it was. I didn’t think anything of it.”
Yauch-Erickson said that when her office received Drown’s appeal, it was based on matters other than the validity of the law in his case.
When Yauch-Erickson figured it out, she added, it was clear to her “there is a four-ounce fluid limit. This was way below that amount.”
She quickly filed in July 2014 for Drown’s release pending appeal, which allowed him to leave prison within days and wait for last week’s vindication.
When last week’s appeal was granted, Drown said, he had mixed feelings knowing, “I wasn’t truly guilty in the first place.”
Drown said he defaulted on college student loans while locked up and has had difficulty getting work with a felony record.
Now in the clear — the prosecutor said he has no intention of retrying the case on a lesser charge — Drown said he’ll soon be taking a job in the printing industry in Green Bay, Wis., but intends to hold someone accountable for the time he lost under lock and key.
“The bottom line is there is no accountability,” he said. “It’s malpractice, plain and simple. I’m going to push this as far as I can.”
State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, chief sponsor of the “bong water” legislation, said, “It’s truly unfortunate that nobody caught this. Seven months of somebody’s life was taken from them because everyone missed this change in law. It’s really surprising to me too because the ‘bong water’ law was really well publicized.”
In another drug prosecution in the county of late involving mistaken incarceration, a Mankato man was jailed for months while waiting for the state crime lab to process suspected narcotics that turned out to be vitamins.
Joseph Burrell, 31, was arrested in November and charged with two felony counts of drug possession. His bail was set at $250,000.
Assistant attorney Rovney said a field test was positive for amphetamine. A more accurate lab test done by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension showed the bag of powder found in Burrell’s car didn’t contain anything illegal.
The charges were dismissed just as Burrell was about to go to trial, leading to his release in February.