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Minnesota Supreme Court Announces Plain Language of Interference With Privacy of a Minor Statute Requires That Defendant Must Have Known Victim Was Under 18 at Time of Offense

by Jacob Barrett

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed and dismissed the charges for interfering with the privacy of a minor against Edgar Galvan-Contreras, holding that the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 609.476, subd. l(e)(2) (2018) requires that a defendant knew or had reason to know the victim was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.

In September 2018, a 15-year-old boy was in the bathroom at a fitness center when he noticed a cell phone camera between the gap in the stalls. The boy reported the incident to an employee and his mother.

Police later obtained a search warrant for Galvan-Contreras’ cell phone and electronic devices, which revealed Galvan-Contreras had saved video of the boy “pulling up his underwear in a bathroom stall.” Galvan-Contreras agreed to an interview with police and admitted he had filmed the boy stating, “I noticed right away that he was a kid.”

Galvan-Contreras was charged for violating § 609.476, subd. l(e)(2) (2018). The crime is a misdemeanor but elevated to a felony if the defendant “violates this subdivision against a minor under the age of 18, knowing or having reason to know that the minor is present.” Id. The State charged Galvan-Contreras only with the felony offence and not the misdemeanor.

Prior to trial, Galvan-Contreras filed a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause, arguing the State failed to allege he knew or should have known he was videotaping a minor. The State counter argued it was only required to prove Galvan-Contreras knew a person was in the stall he was recording. The trial court agreed with the State and denied Galvan-Contreras’ motion.

Pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 4, Galvan-Contreras agreed to stipulate that the State had sufficient evidence to convict him of invasion of privacy but that the State could not prove he knew the person he was recording was under 18 in order to obtain appellate review of the pretrial motion. The State conceded it was unable to prove Galvan-Contreras knew or had reason to know the victim was a minor. Both the State and Galvan Contreras agreed if Galvan-Contreras were successful on appeal a trial would not be necessary on remand.

The trial court subsequently found Galvan-Contreras guilty of the felony. In a precedential decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed holding, the statutory language does not require a defendant to have actual knowledge of the victim’s age, only of the victim’s presence, when the crime was committed.

The Supreme Court accepted review to interpret §609.746, subd. l(e)(2). It stated that the question is whether the phrase “knowing or having reason to know” applies to the victim’s age or presence.

Applying principles of statutory interpretation, the Court stated that the first step is to determine whether the statute is ambiguous. State v. Degroot, 946 N.W.2d 354 (Minn. 2020). A statute is unambiguous when there is only one reasonable way to interpret the text. State v. Fugalli, 967 N.W.2d 74 (Minn. 2021). Words and phrases are read in accordance with the rules of grammar and their common usage. Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (2020). A statute is not read in isolation; all parts of a statute are read as part of a whole. State v. Pakhnyuk, 926 N.W.2d 914 (Minn. 2019).

Turning to the statute at issue in this case, the Court noted that for criminal statutes the term “know” requires “that the actor believes that the specified fact exists.” Minn. Stat. § 609.02, subd. 9(2) (2018). The Court stated that the first part of the statute identifies the victim as being someone who is younger than 18 years of age, and the second part identifies the knowledge requirement for the offense, i.e., “knowing or having reason to know that a minor is present.” The Court pointed out that the statutory construction makes sense because this is the enhancement provision that elevates the offense from a gross misdemeanor to a felony “by identifying a specific victim and a specific knowledge requirement.”

The Court then applied the term “know” to the common meaning of the words around it in the provision, which resulted in the Court concluding: “the defendant must believe in the existence of the specified fact—that the minor is present. In other words, the defendant must know or have reason to know that a minor under the age of 18 (the victim) is present when the offense is committed.”

This interpretation of the statute is the only one that makes sense, the Court explained, because the State’s interpretation removes “the minor” and mens rea distinction between gross misdemeanor and felony offenses from the application of the enhancement provision. That is, under the State’s interpretation, the mere presence of the minor alone – without the defendant also being required to know or have reason to know that the victim is a minor – is determinative. But this interpretation makes presence alone the determinative factor for both gross misdemeanor and felony offenses by removing any mens rea distinction between the two offenses, the Court reasoned.

The Court stated that the rules of statutory interpretation dictate that interpretations that “render a word or phrase superfluous, void, or insignificant” are to be avoided. State v. Thompson, 950 N.W.2d 65 (Minn. 2020). The State’s interpretation would render the language referring to a minor superfluous since presence of any person alone would be sufficient to trigger the enhancement. That is an unreasonable interpretation of the statute. Thus, the Court held that the plain language of § 609.02, subd. 9(2) “requires the State to prove that the defendant knew or had reason to know the person secretly recorded is a minor under the age of 18.”

Turning to the present case, the Court noted that the trial court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss is dispositive of this case. Because the State stipulated in the pre-trial agreement it lacked sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Galvan-Contreras knew or should have known the victim was a minor, the Court held the trial court’s order “must be reversed and the charge against Galvan-Contreras dismissed.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed both the Court of Appeals and the trial court. See: State v. Galvan-Contreras, 980 N.W.2d 578 (Minn. 2022).

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