Thursday, March 20, 2014
The Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday reversed a conviction for advising or encouraging another in committing suicide, ruling that the conviction violated the First Amendment. At the same time, the court remanded the case to determine whether the defendant "assisted" suicides in violation of Minnesota law.
The case, Minnesota v. Melchert-Dinkel, involved the defendant's prosecution and conviction for violation of Minnesota Stat. Sec. 609.215, which makes it illegal to "intentionally advise, encourage, or assist another in taking the other's own life." Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse, responded to posts on web-sites related to suicide and encouraged two individuals, one in England and one in Canada, to take their own lives. Melchert-Dinkel gained the trust of the victims and then urged them each to hang themselves, falsely claiming that he (as she) would also commit suicide.
Melchert-Dinkel was charged with violating Minnesota's ban on advising or encouraging suicide. The trial court convicted him, specifically finding that he "intentionally advised and encouraged" both victims to take their own lives, and concluded that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was not protected by the First Amendment.
The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed. The state high court said that the ban swept too broadly to meet strict scrutiny. In particular, "advise" and "encourage" could include "speech that is more tangential to the act of suicide and the State's compelling interest in preserving life," even "general discussions of suicide with specific individuals or groups."
The court rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected because it was "integral to criminal conduct." The court noted that suicide is no longer illegal in Minnesota, Canada, or the UK. With no underlying criminal conduct, the speech couldn't be integral to it.
The court also rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected incitement. That's because there was no underlying lawless action, imminent or not.
Finally, the court rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected "deceit, fraud, and lies." The court (citing Alvarez) said that there was no such exception to the First Amendment.
At the same time, the court ruled that the portion of the statute that banned "assisting" another in taking his or her own life survived. The court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Melchert-Dinkel's actions constituted "assisting" in the suicides.