Allow us for a moment to toot our own horn. Earlier this month we received a great decision on a serious criminal case here in southeastern Minnesota. Our client was charged with a felony that had allegedly been committed by phone. We filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction and venue, as we felt that the government didn’t have a basis to charge our client in the court that it chose. After a hearing at which David L. Liebow underscored the weaknesses in the State’s case, the court granted our motion and dismissed the case. The prosecutor could have appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals but declined to do so.
Under the Minnesota Constitution, every criminal defendant is entitled to “an impartial jury of the county or district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which county or district shall have been previously ascertained by law.” Ultimately, that means that cases have to be processed in an appropriate court. In addition, in Minnesota, the vast majority of felony cases are prosecuted by county attorneys (called district attorneys in many places), and those county attorneys only have the power to prosecute cases within their jurisdictions. (Misdemeanor cases are a bit more complicated, as some are prosecuted by city attorneys and some are prosecuted by county attorneys.) Often, this is cut-and-dried – an assault that occurs in Rochester has to be prosecuted within Olmsted County by the Rochester City Attorney’s Office or the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office. The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure also have a number of special venue rules. For example, they provide that crimes committed on or within 1,500 feet of a county line can be prosecuted in either county, and crimes “occurring within a municipality located in more than one county or district must be prosecuted in the county where the municipality’s city hall is located, unless the municipality designates by ordinance some other county or district in which part of the municipality is located.” (That’s why you’ll be prosecuted in Fillmore County if you commit a crime in the Olmsted County portion of Chatfield or in Goodhue County if you commit a crime in the Olmsted County portion of Pine Island.) But occasionally, the issue is less clear. Venue can be challenged before trial, as we did, but it is also an element of the offense that the prosecutor has to prove at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant will sometimes even be acquitted or his conviction reversed because venue was incorrect or not proven beyond a reasonable doubt or because the wrong prosecutor tried the offense.
Though what county a case is prosecuted in may not seem like much, we’re proud to hold prosecutors to what the law requires on issues big and small.