EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Supreme Court of Minnesota Finds Rules of Evidence Apply to Restitution Hearings

Do the rules of evidence apply at restitution hearings? According to the Respondent's Brief in State v. Willis, 2016 WL 9115484 (Minn. 2016), many states answer this question in the affirmative:

See, e.g., People v. Matzke, 842 N.W.2d 557, 559-60 (Mich. Ct. App. 2013); In re Delric H., 819 A.2d 1117, 1125 (Md. Ct. App. 2003) (noting that many states, including Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin either complete dispense with, or relax, the rules of evidence in restitution hearings).

The Supreme Court of Minnesota, however, decided to go in a different direction.

In State v. Willis, 898 N.W.2d 642 (Minn. 2017), Berry Willis was convicted of aggravated forgery.

The crime at issue here occurred after a bank foreclosed on property that appellant Berry Alan Willis owned. The bank sold the foreclosed property to P.H., who made several improvements to the property with the help of her adult son, J.H. After the sale to P.H., Willis filed a forged quitclaim deed that purported to transfer the foreclosed property from P.H. back to Willis. When P.H. and J.H. later attempted to sell the foreclosed property, Willis's forged quitclaim deed and continual harassment of potential buyers interfered with those efforts. 


At Willis's February 2015 sentencing, the district court imposed a presumptive guideline sentence. The court also told Willis that it was "reserv[ing] restitution for 90 days to allow the State and the victims to come forward with a claim or claims and then [Willis] would have that right to challenge it through the restitution process set forth by statute."


At the restitution hearing, the State presented a letter from P.H.'s attorney describing the $2,000 in legal fees P.H. incurred to clear the title to the foreclosed property. The district court asked if Willis had any objections to the letter, and Willis replied, "Yes, I would object to this exhibit here." The court overruled Willis's objection and admitted the letter. Later in the hearing, the State offered a group of e-mails exchanged between J.H. and several real estate agents that described how Willis had interfered with the agents' efforts to show the foreclosed property to prospective buyers. Willis objected to the admissibility of the e-mails on hearsay grounds. When the court asked the State to respond to Willis's objection, the State replied, "the Rules of Evidence...don't strictly apply...to a restitution hearing and [J.H.] is qualified to explain the document."

This then set the stage for Willis's appeal. That appeal all came down to Minnesota Rule of Evidence 1101(b), which reads as follows:

(b) Rules inapplicable. The rules other than those with respect to privileges do not apply in the following situations:

(1) Preliminary questions of fact. The determination of questions of fact preliminary to admissibility of evidence when the issue is to be determined by the court under Rule 104(a).

(2) Grand jury. Proceedings before grand juries.

(3) Miscellaneous proceedings. Proceedings for extradition or rendition; probable cause hearings; sentencing, or granting or revoking probation; issuance of warrants for arrest, criminal summonses, and search warrants; and proceedings with respect to release on bail or otherwise.

(4) Contempt proceedings in which the court may act summarily.

According to the Willis majority,

The restitution hearing at issue here is not a sentencing hearing...[A] restitution hearing involves the presentation of evidence that is relevant to a factual dispute regarding "the proper amount or type of restitution [that] must be resolved by the court by the preponderance of the evidence."...

In short, the Rules of Evidence apply to all cases and proceedings unless the rules provide otherwise. Because the language of Minn. R. Evid. 1101(b)(3) does not preclude their application to restitution hearings, the Minnesota Rules of Evidence apply to such hearings.

The dissent disagreed, noting that

The majority's decision departs from the unanimous opinion of the many state supreme courts and federal appellate courts that have determined—either explicitly or implicitly—that the exclusion of "sentencing" from the scope of their rules of evidence encompasses restitution hearings.

My initial inclination is to agree with the dissent, but I feel like this is an issue that deserves further investigation.



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