MN High Court Throws Out Nonsupport Conviction

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: MN felony nonpayment of support.

State of Minnesota v. Larry Allen Nelson. MN felony nonpayment of support

Larry Allen Nelson and his ex-wife have two children, both of whom are now adults. He was ordered to pay child support starting in 1993, but he stopped paying them in 1997. Ever since that time, his ex-wife and Olmsted County repeatedly tried to collect, and Nelson had been held in civil contempt multiple times. As of 2008, he owed over $80,000.

In that year, he was charged with a felony for failure to provide care and support for more than 180 days, in violation of Minnesota Statute 609.375, subds. 1, 2a(1). The criminal charges covered the period from April 2007 through April 2008. During this time, the complaint alleged that he was required to pay a total of $378 per month. But during that same period, he paid only $41.10, which was an involuntary payment.

Nelson's moved to dismiss the charges. He argued that the complaint failed to state that he had failed to provide both care and support. The state took the position that the statute is violated if the person fails to provide care or support (or both). The court in Olmsted county agreed with the state and refused to dismiss the charges.

The state also made a motion to prohibit Nelsom from arguing that his non-monetary care would be a defense. The Olmsted county court also agreed with this position, and prohibited Nelson from raising this as a defense.

Knowing that things weren't going well in the trial court, Nelson decided that his best course of action was to waive a jury trial and stipulate to the facts. This allowed him to make a speedy appeal. The trial court found him guilty and sentenced him to two years supervised probation. Nelson then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which agreed with the district court and affirmed. Nelson then asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear his case.

The Supreme Court took a careful look at the statute, which makes it a crime to knowingly fail to "provide care and support to a spouse or child." The high court agreed that this is ambiguous. To be guilty of a crime, it could require that the defendant not provide care, and also not provide support. Or it could mean that the defendant provides one, but not the other.

Since those two words are not defined in the statute, the court first looked at the definitions. It concluded that the ordinary meaning of the word "care" was non-monetary in nature, but that "support" was monetary.

Since the two words mean different things, the court found that the statute was ambiguous as to whether the defendant had to be charged with not providing both of them. The high court examined the logical meaning of the words, and concluded that there were two possible meanings. It noted that Nelson's interpretation was probably the more common meaning of the language.

Because of the statute's ambiguity, the Supreme Court resolved the case under the "rule of lenity," that ambiguous criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of the defendant. Therefore the Court concluded that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant failed to provide both care and support. In this case, the defendant had been precluded from arguing that he provided care. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

Justices Dietzen, Lillehaug, and Chife Justice Gildea dissented, in two long dissenting opinions. The three justices would have affirmed Nelson's conviction.

No. A12-0071, ___ N.W.2d ___ (Minn. Feb. 12, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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