Does this Outfit Make Me Look Guilty?

Woman poses in dressThe Law Librarian has blogged about courtroom etiquette before, but this post looks at dressing for the occasion. Think this is a shallow concern that doesn’t apply to you? If you were spending hundreds of dollars on an attorney to represent you at your DWI trial, and he or she showed up dressed for yoga class, you wouldn’t appreciate it.  And you might just feel that you weren’t getting your money’s worth.   Further, the Rules of General Practice require attorneys to wear appropriate courtroom attire Most attorneys in any jurisdiction instinctively get this, but fashion history has given us some unfortunate exceptions.

The attire of litigants themselves is just as key. Jurors, being human, might easily pick up a guilty vibe from obvious lockup attire. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court basically held in Estelle v. Williams that orange would NEVER be the new black (or navy or charcoal gray) in that a defendant could not be compelled to stand trial before a jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothes. The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure 26.03, subd. 2(b) thus state that “[a]n incarcerated defendant or witness shall not appear in court in the distinctive attire of a prisoner.”

For these reasons, it is probably the non-inmate that needs to take the most care in dressing for court.  If you have a lawyer, they’ll likely remind you to dress conservatively.   If you don’t, the Courts’ webpage advises you to “dress conservatively” with “shorts, T-shirts, plunging necklines, and torn clothing” NOT being appropriate Also, rare is the juror or judge that will be impressed by your tattoos or underwear.  For more detailed guidelines, consult this dress code ordered by the Judges of Kent County, Delaware for what to avoid.  Also, the Teen Court of Crowley, Texas offers a great visual guide to court-appropriate attire for younger litigants.  And one last factor to keep in mind:  Even if you outfit isn’t “inappropriate,” bored jurors may become distracted from the merits of your case by the bold details of an unusual outfit.  So play it safe by keeping it simple and understated!

 

DoorwayAnyone familiar with our work knows that we promote local criminal expungement resources. We host the Second Judicial District’s criminal expungement forms clinic and also direct people to VLN’s expungement seminars held throughout the community. By sealing eligible criminal records, expungement allows people get jobs or other opportunities that they couldn’t otherwise.

That is why we took interest in the decision handed down last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court.  In the case of S.A.M.  v. State of Minnesota, the petitioner  plead guilty to second-degree burglary back in 2003, and this felony conviction was deemed a misdemeanor for sentencing under Minn. Stat §609.13.  Petitioner was released from probation less than three years later, having completed all court-ordered conditions.  He petitioned for expungement of this offense in 2015, almost immediately after Minnesota’s expungement law was reformed. (To the casual observer, S.A.M. appeared to be the ideal expungement candidate:  With no other criminal history since the burglary, he had since gotten his bachelors degree, purchased a home, stopped drinking, stepped up to raise his child, and had long ceased contact with his co-burglars.) But the district court denied his petition, stating that he was ineligible under Minn. Stat. §609A.02, since he had not technically been “convicted” of a misdemeanor, and could not apply for expungement under subd. 3(a)(3) of the statute.  (Burglary is not on the list of expungible felonies, so S.A.M. could not petition under subd3(a)(5).)  The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Minnesota Supreme Court analyzed the expungement statute and Minn. Stat §609.13.  Writing for a tight 4-3 majority, Justice Anderson concluded that the expungement statute and its “was convicted” language requires a court to look at a petititioner’s status at the time he “was convicted.”  S.A.M. was thus not entitled to seek expungement through the misdemeanor option.  It also held that the Legislature could not have intended for its incrementally-listed, successively harsher, expungement options to be upended by stayed impositions that get called misdemeanors only by virtue of Minn. Stat §609.13.  Justice Lillehaug wrote a forceful dissent, asserting that by the plain words of Minn. Stat §609.13,  petitioners felony conviction was “deemed to be for a misdemeanor.”  He further wrote that the expungement statute created multiple “doorways” for seeking expungement, which are not themselves”destinations.”  The law still required district courts to consider the severity of the underlying crime and any mitigating or aggravating factors.  And due to the ambiguity of the expungement statute, “was convicted” could just as easily be read through the lens of the “deemed” language of Minn. Stat §609.13.  Justice Lillehaug concluded with his hope that “the Legislature will clarify the expungement statute to reopen this door.”

The impact of this decision could be huge.  An amicus brief in the case noted that district court judges across the state granted more than 26,000 stays of imposition from 2008 to 2012, but some of these might have involved otherwise-expungible felonies.  If you have ever read the expungement law and found it unclear, this decision shows that you are not alone. If you are interested in seeking expungement and not sure how this decision affects you, it is all the more reason to come to an expungement clinic and discuss your case with a lawyer.

 

Homeless woman and shopping cartThis week brought the sad news that despite improvements in the rest of the metro area, poverty rates in Ramsey County and St. Paul have been rising.  Specifically, “[s]lightly more than 40 percent of St. Paul residents live within 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold, earning less than $44,875 for a family of four in the period studied (2011 to 2015),” an increase from 38.7 percent in the previous five-year period.  This report comes from the Metropolitan Council, and is available online.  And yet this news report on local poverty levels is not surprising next to last year’s news that homelessness was also rising in Ramsey County

Poverty and homelessness are large and overlapping problems without easy solutions, both for the community and for affected individuals.  But there is at least a local tool that can assist those seeking emergency shelter.  Ramsey County Coordinated Access to Housing and Shelter (CAHS) provides housing services and support for Ramsey County families, single adults and unaccompanied youth who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless.   With CAHS, families seeking emergency shelter and supportive housing in Ramsey County no longer need to contact every shelter and housing provider for openings.   Rather, by completing a CAHS assessment, homeless families and individuals can get direct assistance in finding an available emergency shelter.  Access CAHS by calling United Way 2-1-1, and they can help you get the most appropriate referral for housing program support based upon the needs of your family.  In addition, if you are a Ramsey County resident facing eviction due to a legal issue with your landlord, our Tuesday afternoon legal clinic is available for you! 

 

 

Were You the Victim of a Crime?

Broken windowWere you recently the victim of a crime? Whether you experienced property damage or physical violence, you have certain statutory rights regarding notification, participation, compensation, and protection.  And even though Minnesota has arguably been ahead of the curve in this area, victims have traditionally been “left behind” by the criminal justice system.  For instance, it was only in 1973 that the first battered women’s shelter opened in Saint Paul.  The Crime Victims Reparations Board was created by the Minnesota Legislature in 1974 to help victims of violent crime.  The Minnesota Crime Victims Bill of Rights was passed in 1983, followed by the 1985 creation of the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman (OCVO), also the first of such in the nation.

You can read about the options available to crime victims on the Ramsey County Attorney’s webpage.  For instance, restitution is the money a judge orders the offender to pay the victim to compensate the victim for out-of-pocket losses that are a direct result of a crime. Eligible expenses may include medical and dental bills, counseling costs, property losses and repairing damaged property. Restitution becomes part of the offender’s sentence or disposition and can be ordered after the offender is either found guilty or pleads guilty, with the amount of dependent on both the actual expenses and the offender’s ability to pay.  Keep in mind that costs not related to the crime(s) committed by the offender will not be included in a restitution order, such as payments for physical pain, suffering or emotional trauma. Victims seeking financial compensation for these types of losses may wish to hire an attorney to pursue a personal injury claim in civil court.  For more information is available in this Minnesota Restitution Guide brochure and also through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Probably the biggest shortcoming of restitution is that it depends on an actual arrest and conviction.  And sad to say, only so many reported crimes lead to an arrest, much less a guilty plea or conviction.  If you have experienced a violent crime, the Crime Victim Reparations Board can be of help even without a conviction.  (See their form for eligibility.) You will also want to consult the comprehensive Crime Victim Rights Information Guide to see what other options you have.

 

Snow shovelLikely none of us was truly prepared for last weekend’s nine inches of snow.  Hopefully you managed to find your snow shovel and deal with the white fluffy stuff that covered your driveway and sidewalk. (No? Check behind your lawnmower and under your garden hose.)  Snow removal is not just a matter of keeping up appearances on your block.  City ordinances also require diligent home upkeep, specifically clearing the sidewalk that runs in front of your property or to your door and mailbox.  Saint Paul Ordinance §113.02 states that “[t]he owner or occupant of any building or lot abutting a public sidewalk is responsible for and shall remove any accumulation of snow and/or ice from said public sidewalk within twenty-four (24) hours after the snow and/or ice has ceased to fall, gather or accumulate.”  (Notice that this language also applies to you if you’re the ”occupant” of the house, so talk to your landlord and agree on shovel-duty.)

If the offending snow is not removed in a timely matter, following ordinances allow the City to send notice to either the owner or occupant to get the job done.  If this measure fails, the City can  schedule the snow removal with a contractor, and then assess the owner or occupant for the cost (likely much more than a new shovel would cost).  Said owner or occupant could also be charged with a petty misdemeanor and assessed an additional fine.  Are you a St. Paul resident with a neighbor whose snow removal neglect is a hazard to you and others using the sidewalk? Contact the City to report the violation. If you prefer a more neighborly approach, see their printable door hanger to gently nudge your neighbor into action.

The above code is aimed at St. Paul residents, but other area municipalities have similar ordinances requiring snow removal:

  • Arden Hills – §602.03 Subd. 18 - ”Public Nuisance – All snow or ice not removed from public sidewalks within twenty-four hours after the snow or ice has been deposited, unless that portion of the public sidewalk has been exempted from this requirement by city council resolution.”
  • Falcon Heights – §22-47 – “A nuisance upon premises. No person shall knowingly cause, or create, or permit nuisances upon any premises as follows: (1) Snow and ice not removed from public sidewalks 24 hours after a storm has ended…”
  • Maplewood – §12-99 - “Removal of snow and ice. There shall be no snow and ice on parking lots, driveways, steps and walkways which may create a hazard.”
  • Roseville –§ 407.03 - “…On all properties with off-the-road, non-motorized pathways, except nontax exempt R-1 or R-2 properties, ice and snow shall be removed from the non-motorized pathway within 12 hours after snow and ice have ceased to be deposited thereon.”
  • White Bear Lake -  §901.030 – “SIDEWALKS; SNOW AND RUBBISH REMOVAL, NONCOMPLIANCE.  All persons owning or occupying any building in the City are required to remove dirt or rubbish from the sidewalks adjacent to such building.”

Typically, the respective municipal codes also contain language allowing the city to hire out the snow removal project should the owner/occupant lapse in this duty, and to bill accordingly for the service (likely at a much higher cost than a new show shovel).  And yet this inconvenience wouldn’t compare to the nightmare of a lawsuit brought by someone injured on your sidewalk as a result of unattended snow and ice.  Don’t see your town listed here?  You can call your city administration and ask about snow removal, but your time might be better spent just shoveling or hiring out the job.

 

 

The Smallest Units of Government

Community meetingAs the 2016 election season fades behind us, it is a good time to reflect on our government structures and their various functions. It is easy follow government at the federal and state levels by reading the news, but not so much where local government is concerned. In fact, people often cannot name or identify the very people who represent them at the city or county levels. This is unfortunate, as many visitors to the law library might be surprised at how close their visit brings them to their local governments in action. The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and St. Paul City Counsel both conduct their public meetings in the Court House.  People who come to the library and inquire about seeing a public trial might also consider sitting in on a commissioners meeting.  (Minutes and ideotapes of these meetings are also available online.)

What is going on beyond the Court House? Starting at the top, you can go to USA.gov to find all divisions of the federal government, and learn exactly where to direct your questions or complaints.  Websites like Common Cause can help you identify all of your elected officials at once, plus see their sponsorships and contributors.  On the other end, what about the most local levels?  To learn who your neighbors are and what they are concerned about, consider joining an online community such as Nextdoor.   If you want to become more involved, you may also consider using some of your spare time to volunteer in the community. Ramsey County has a page just for you, with opportunities to serve on county advisory boards and committees.  You may be just one person, but don’t underestimate your power to make a difference!

 

RIP to I-CAN!

I-CAN brochures in trashWe were stunned to learn of the recent demise of I-CAN! Legal’s online form system, which their website indicates is down due to “technical problems.”  Its popular divorce pleading application was a mainstay of the Minnesota Courts website, and we were always happy to promote it t our pro se patrons seeking divorce. The I-CAN! tool allowed users to prepare customized divorce pleadings much more quickly and accurately than they could with the traditional printout forms. They could be saved and edited electronically at the patron’s convenience.  They were also more compact and involved less paper to contend with. I-CAN! offered users the added advantage of electronic discretion as they prepared their forms, which they could later print out and file at the time of their choosing. In comparison, the hardcopy forms are lengthy and cumbersome, with the entire packet for a contested divorce with children numbering well over 150 pages.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch will no longer be offering I-CAN! on the Courts’ webpage, which it says is due to the company’s decision to no longer support the application. Website users are thus being directed to the od hardcopy forms instead. I-CAN! customers can still access their electronic documents that they have already prepared by calling 1-657-232-8281. Users who have other questions can always contact the state Self-Help Center at 651 259-3888.

Considering how valuable I-CAN! was for pro se divorce pleadings, we look forward to the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s next electronic divorce application.

 

Quick and Easy Election Information

ballotRecently the law library has started to see a stream of inquiries about voting eligibility and absentee voting.  This matches recent news reports that a record number of Minnesotans registered to vote via absentee ballot last week.  Minnesota is one of 37 states with absentee voting.  There are no formal criteria for casting an absentee ballot in Minnesota, and you can request one through the Minnesota Secretary of State, but time is of the essence to submit your application and then receive and return your ballot!  Learn more about absentee voting through this article.

Similarly, you can also register to vote through the Secretary of State’s website.  Call them if you live in the metro area and have questions at 651-215-1440.  Ramsey County residents can also find local election information and even cast their vote early at their Plato Street election office ahead of election day.  At this point are you wondering if you are in fact eligible to vote? This questionnaire will help you find out.   (Hint:  You must have completed your entire sentence if you have been convicted of a felony.)  Plan to vote the typical way on the typical day (Tuesday November 8)?  It’s easy to find your polling placeFinally, no matter how or when you choose to vote, don’t be caught off-guard or surprised by your ballot.  Use this function from the Secretary of State to see what it will look like beforehand!


 

A frequent issue that arises for users of the court system is that of finding contact information of the parties they need for their court case. This could be the intended defendant that must be served, or a potential witness to be subpoenaed. The task is made all the more challenging with the modern need to keep personal information personal for security reasons. So what is a litigant to do? Even though there is no single perfect method for locating someone, you may find one of these resources useful.mailbox

  • Consider the old printed white pages and yellow pages. This used to be the standard tool, but has declined with fewer persons having “land lines” for phone service and even fewer publishing their numbers. Still, they can be valuable especially for business information. Most libraries will have this resource, and a public library or historical society is likely to have printed phone directories from past years.
  • The post office likely has forwarding address information for a person that has moved. It is not generally publicly available, but you can opt to fill out a 5-2 Requests for Employee or Customer Information, and provide the requested information pursuant to legal process service.
  • County property records can also be a resource, especially if you are looking for a landlord or other property owner. For Ramsey County, look up address and then see taxpayer reports for the identified taxpayer for the year in question. (You don’t necessarily need to be a subscriber.)  This will normally give the taxpayer’s address as well.  You can also find the official name of the owning business this way, and then look that up through the Secretary of State to find a person and contact information behind that business.
  • Does the person in question have a business (or used to)? Use the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office business filings lookup and get their Registered Office Address.
  • If the person in question has been in court on a traffic citation, their address may be part of that file which can be found in court records (MNCIS).  Similarly, they may have been served as part of another court action and their address is given on a service list. You will still have to go to the courthouse to access the actual records, but there you can check pleadings like the complaint for addresses.
  • Might they be in prison?  Try the Department of Corrections offender locater search.  Even if you have no plans to sue someone in prison, you may still need them as a witness.  If so, speak to a court administrator about getting a subpoena.

These are just some of the possible tools that might help you locate your person in question.  Also read the Courts’ webpage for information on this task.  Do you know of other any handy resources for locating people? Feel free to share them here!

 

So You’re NOT a Kid…Or Are You?

teenaged girlThe same legal issues that snag adults can just as easily snag minors.  But answers and solutions might be different simply because of the age factor.   If you are an adult seeking expungment of a criminal record, being a minor at the time of the offense could bear on the expungment remedy available.  Working a job when you are a minor has special limitations and caveats.   You might earn a paycheck, but your tax obligations may boil down to whether or not someone else claims you as a dependent.

In Minnesota you are an adult if you are eighteen years old,  but where do you stand if you are under 18 and on your own?  For instance, do you always need parental consent for medical treatment?  If you are living on your own you may be able to consent to your own treatments.  If you have been married or have given birth, you may also consent to treatments for you or for that of your minor child, plus you are responsible for the payments of such.   See this brochure from www.mncasa.org for more information about minors and medical treatments.

Are you are a minor but don’t want to (or cannot safely) stay with your parents?  You may have other options.  Are your parents willing to let someone else take on the authority of being your parent?  A Delegation of Parental Authority might be the answer.  If you feel you have been abused, you may file for an Order of Protection.  If you believe the circumstances are such that you feel you should be able to live independently and make your own decisions, see about emancipation.

If you are a minor and have run away from home, can your parents force you to come back?  Probably, because you can’t legally live away from home except in cases of consent, marriage, enlistment, or having a court order to do so.  You might also consider the online resources available through the Children’s Law Center.  Even though their mission is providing legal representation to foster children, wards of the state, or kids who have been removed from their homes, their publications are a great place to start.  For instance, their Resources for Youth Experiencing Homelessness is a comprehensive list of organizations that can offer assistance to homeless youth. For legal information, also consider the huge Homeless Youth Handbook with its extensive coverage of numerous issues.

If you still have questions consider consulting a lawyer.