This case was presented to a jury on November 14th and 15th, 2000. The
facts relayed in this story come directly from testimony provided at trial.
I had been practicing law for about a year at that time. After several
jury trials, I was slowly beginning to understand the importance of the
jury selection process.
Factually and legally speaking, this was not a good case for my client.
My client was a really nice guy. The years leading up to his criminal
entanglement with Clay County Minnesota had not been good to him. A hard
split-up with his ex-wife had cost him the life he had built for himself.
It was a meager existence, but it was all he had ever known. His father
was in the salvaging business and that is what my client did for a living.
He had an 8
th grade education and dropped out of school to help his Dad.
He had been living in North Dakota on some property and doing his salvaging
business for many years. He mostly dealt in cars and car parts. When his
marriage ended, he lost his house and property in the divorce. Most of
his tools and parts ended up in a couple of old semi-trailers for storage.
He had noticed a piece of property in Downer, Minnesota that was going
to be for sale at a sheriff's auction. The property was an old rod
and reel club that included a building and a small parcel of land with
the building. My client was able to purchase the property from the county
for an incredibly low price. He was not very sophisticated when it came
to real estate and did not realize that there were several reasons for
the property's low price tag. The property's only access was across
the Downer Township Hall's driveway. This easement question was a
key reason for the property's low price, but there were others. My
client was not aware of these issues. He dealt with the county directly
in the sale and never had the benefit of a real estate agent or an attorney.
Shortly after taking possession, he moved his large trailers with his possessions
onto the property. He also proceeded to move an old school bus onto the
property as well as several other older salvage vehicles. The building
on the property was in bad shape. He hoped to fix it up enough to have
his sister move in, as she was having hard times of her own. Eventually,
my client and his sister began to reside at the property. My client lived
in the bus that was parked besides the building. His sister lived in the
building. After moving onto the property, my client discovered that the
septic system was completely shot and would need to be replaced. New septic
systems were extremely expensive and my client knew that.
Downer is a small township, but with enough homes and streets that it pretty
much looks like a small town. Needless to say, my client and his sister
attracted the attention of the locals when they moved in. Immediately
there were complaints about my client and his "stuff". Oddly
enough, my client was located next door to a sizable potato storage building.
About ½ to the east of my client's property was a large auto-salvage
business, with several acres of junk cars. Yet, my client was creating
quite the stir in Downer.
At some point, the county took an interest in my client's activities
in Downer. They started making threats, despite my client's good faith
efforts to improve his property. He was trying to cooperate with the county
and the township.
And then the shit hit the fan. The Downer township hall did not have indoor
plumbing. They had a Port-a-Jon behind the township hall. At some point
after my client moved in, someone from the township noticed that the Port-a-Jon
was completely full. Apparently, that was thought to be unusual.
When confronted by someone from the township, my client admitted that he
and his sister had been emptying their sewage into the township Port-a-Jon.
He told the county that he and his sister were using 5 gallon buckets
as toilets and then they would dump those into the Port-a-Jon. They were
only going to do that until they could get a new septic system installed.
My client was never deceitful to the county or the township. He was an
honest, straight-forward, hard-working guy. He told the township exactly
what had happened.
Before my client knew what was going on, he had been slapped with 5 counts
of prohibited storage and one count for a violation of the sewage treatment
ordinance. These were brought under the County Code, but because they
were charged as misdemeanors and carried the potential for jail time,
my client was entitled to a jury trial. The county could have dealt with
this civilly and fines, but they choose to treat this as a criminal matter.
That's when he came and talked to me about the case. At this point,
after my client was able to consult with me about the law and certain
other issues, we decided to take the matter to trial. It was not an easy
decision, because the facts and law were not on our side, but to my client,
pleading guilty would mean admitting to being a criminal and he did not
like that idea. There was just something so fundamentally wrong about
the county trying to make him a criminal over this situation that I think
both of us were compelled to make a stand and fight.
As the trial began, the government presented its case. One of their witnesses
was a resident of Downer. I felt bad for this witness and others in the
town. I understand the concept of wanting your property and those around
your property to look nice. I understand small town mentality. I sympathized
with the town people who were concerned. However, if you are going to
testify and complain that someone is operating a business on their property
without "permits or anything", then you should probably not
be doing the same thing. Upon cross-examination, this complaining witness
testified that he ran a commercial painting business on his property and
that he stored paint, paint thinner and other chemicals related to the
business on his property. Of course he was doing so without a license
or permit. He also acknowledged the existence of the huge salvage yard
½ mile away. He was able to provide the state with testimony that
my client had a couple of junk cars, a bus, and a few trailers on his property.
The government then put on its "star" witness. He was a county
worker called to testify to the fact that my client's septic system
was not compliant with the current code and was illegal. He also pontificated
as to how the trailers and the old cars amounted to improper storage.
After he testified for the government, I was able to ask him a few questions
about proper septic systems and the county's sewage treatment ordinance.
He confirmed that under Minnesota law, the seller of real property is
required to have a proper septic system in place before selling the property.
He then acknowledged that my client had purchased the property from the
County and that the improper septic system that my client was being charged
with was there when the county sold him the property.
But how can that be if the seller is required to insure a compliant septic
system? Wait for it……because the government is exempt from
such a requirement. How great is that? The government just handed us a
big fat, triple scoop of hypocrisy ice cream, with a five gallon bucket
full of BS to go along with it. Not only was the county exempt from this
legal requirement and could sell my client a bad septic system; but they
then turned around and charged him criminally for having the bad septic system.
At trial my client testified on his behalf. He told the jury that he felt
horrible about the entire situation, especially the Port-a-Jon incident.
He testified that immediately after being told of the problem, he paid
for the Port-a-Jon to be emptied. He also told the jury about how he improved
much of the property since he moved in. He had mowed down the tall grass
and made exterior repairs to the building. He put in some gardens in the
back of the property. He was using the trailers to store his items, as
they were essentially sheds for him. He did keep most of his actual "Junk"
or salvage parts in the confines of these trailers. The trailers really
could not go anywhere. He made an effort to keep the few cars he had away
from the township parking lot and he had parked the bus close to the building.
Though he did admit there were now a few more salvage cars on the property.
They were good deals and that is how he earned a living.
He testified about the years leading up to this and the hard times he had
fallen on. At one point, while discussing his marriage falling apart and
an incident were his ex-wife stabbed him, my client broke down on the
stand. Years of getting dirt kicked in his face, including the county
now spending two days and God knows how much money trying to make him
a criminal, finally forced its full weight upon his soul. As he sat there
sobbing and trying to regain his composure, he looked helpless. It was
a moment I will never forget. I realized that all sorts of forces had
brought me to that point in time for the sole purpose of sticking up for
this man. He had been bullied all his life and now the government was
taking their turn. I don't like bullies, but I do like to fight.
While on the stand, my client looked like a salvage guy. He tried to wear
his nicest clothes, but even they had grease stains on them. His hands
were permanently stained with grease, along with the wears and tears of
a lifetime of work. Yet, his hands were very familiar to those of us who
grew up around people who used their hands for a living. I noticed the
jury looking at his hands as he testified.
It was an emotional closing. I got worked-up, choked-up, and probably objected
to. I implored the jury to think about how the government drug my client
into the courthouse and forced him to discuss things that were terribly
embarrassing; all in the name of a bus, some junk cars, a couple of trailers
with parts in them, and a septic system that the government sold him.
The government was asking them, the jury, to use their incredible power
as the voice of the community to make this man a criminal. I suggested
they use their power in a different way. I told the jury that though my
client was no Hugh Heffner, living in the Playboy Mansion, getting weekly
manicures, he was still a human being. I told them my client, like all
human beings, is deserving of some basic dignity. I asked them to put
an end to the madness by finding my client Not Guilty of all the charges
leveled against him and send him home with a little dignity.
And that is precisely what they did. In what seemed like a very short time,
the jury knocked on the door. They returned not guilty verdicts on all
6 charges. It was a very positive moment in my client's life. I was
so blessed to share that experience with him. We were both so thankful
and grateful that the jury recognized the hypocrisy and rendered such
a just and noble verdict. This technically was jury nullification, by
all accounts. This fundamental right of the jury is and always has been
at the heart of American jurisprudence.
FINAL CASE RESULTS: 6 NOT GUILTY VERDICTS
5 Misdemeanor Improper Storage Charges - 5 NOT GUILTY VERDICTS
1 Misdemeanor Violation of Sewage Treatment Ordinance - 1 NOT GUILTY VERDICT