An unshoveled sidewalk is not enough evidence to send a man to prison for two years for failing to register as a predatory offender.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals today overturned the conviction of Joey Nelson of Pine County, who was convicted in a one-day trial after authorities said he was no longer living at his apartment in the county and had moved elsewhere. Registered offenders are required to notify officials five days before moving to another area.
The case shows how easy it can be to send an offender back to prison on the thinnest of evidence.
The authorities became suspicious after Nelson was stopped by police in Texas on February 9, 2010. An investigator for the Pine County Sheriff’s Office visited Nelson’s home the same day and found an unshoveled sidewalk after a snowfall. On the investigator’s testimony, Nelson was sent to prison.
But the Court of Appeals said prosecutors didn’t provide any evidence of a new address for Nelson. “Rather, the state simply asked the jury to infer that Nelson had a new primary address based on evidence that Nelson did not appear to be present at his registered primary address on February 9, 2010,” the court said.
Far from reasonable doubt, it said, there were other circumstances that could explain Nelson being in Texas on a given day, and an unshoveled sidewalk in Pine County:
A second reasonable inference is that Nelson simply was visiting Texas on a short-term basis and was intending to return to Pine City to continue living at his registered primary address. That a person is present in Texas does not necessarily imply that the person has moved his or her primary residence to Texas. Many persons who are not residents of Texas surely are present within that state on any given day.
A third reasonable inference is that Nelson had a secondary address in Texas where he regularly or occasionally stayed overnight when he was not at his primary address in Pine City. But there is no requirement for persons required to register under section 243.166 to register secondary addresses located outside of Minnesota. See Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 4a(a)(2), (b); see also id., subd. 1a(i) (defining secondary address).
A fourth reasonable inference is that Nelson had departed from his registered primary address without any intention to return but with an intention to either become homeless or to search for a new primary address. Such a person is required by section 243.166 to register, but that requirement springs from a subdivision other than subdivision 3(b), which is the statutory basis of the offense charged in this case. See Minn. Stat. § 243.166, subd. 3a. The state did not attempt to prove that Nelson had violated the requirements of subdivision 3a.
Unanswered in the decision, of course, is how a properly-instructed jury of reasonable people couldn’t see the several possibilities constituting “reasonable doubt.”