Fugitive Can't Prosecute Appeal, MN High Court Holds

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: criminal law, appeal, fugitive dismissal rule.

State of Minnesota v. John Mark Hentges. MN criminal law, appeal, fugitive dismissal rule

In 2011, John Mark Hentges was convicted in Le Sueuer County District Court for felony failure to pay child support. The sentencing hearing was set for April 5, 2011, but Hentges never showed up. The trial court issued a bench warrant. Eight months later, Hentges was picked up and placed in the county jail. The trial court set another hearing. This time, even though Hentges was in jail, he still refused to attend the hearing. The judge set another hearing date, and announced that he would impose a sentence, whether or not Hentges attended. Hentges once again refused to leave the jail to attend his hearing, and the judge sentenced him. The sentence included five years probation and some jail time (presumably in the same jail that Hentges refused to come out of for his hearing).

By April 2012, Hentges had served his jail time and was released. Unfortunately, he had neglected to sign certain probation forms and provide a DNA sample as required by the terms of his probation. The case once again came before the district judge, who issued another bench warrant. About that same time, the notice of appeal was filed in the case. Hentges was arrested again, and the probation officer used the occasion to bring up additional probation violations. The judge scheduled another hearing for August 21. Not surprisingly, Hentges didn't show up for this hearing, either. The long-suffering judge signed yet another bench warrant. This time, Hentges did a better job of absconding, and he hasn't been seen since.

Since the appeal had been filed, the State Public Defender's office continued to admirably perform it duties, and it actively pursued the appeal, even though their client was a fugitive from justice. Despite his fugitive status, however, Hentges was not totally incommunicado. During the course of the appeal, he filed a pro se supplemental brief along with the brief filed by his attorneys.

The state moved to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that a fugitive forfeited his right to appeal. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished order, denied this motion on January 4, 2013. The case went forward in the Court of Appeals, but the state filed a petition for the Supreme Court to review this order. When the Supreme Court granted review, the Court of Appeals put the case on hold.

Curiously, the issue had never arisen in Minnesota. However, the Supreme Court cited cases from other states dating back to 1850 holding that an appeals court may decline to hear a case if the person who has escaped custody while the case was pending. It also cited Smith v. United States, 94 U.S. 97 (1876), a U.S. Supreme Court case adopting this rule in the federal courts. The Court went on to note that the rule has been adopted in 43 states. In Hawaii, Michigan, South Dakota, and Vermont, the issue has never been decided. Only two states, Louisiana and New Mexico, have a contrary rule, which the Minnesota high court said was "for reasons peculiar to each state."

Minnesota joined the other 43 states and held that the same rule applies in Minnesota. Therefore, it went on to determine whether it applied in this case. The defense argued that it shouldn't apply in this case for three reasons. He (through his attorneys) argued that he is not a fugitive, that the state waited too long to move to dismiss, and that it would violate his rights because he hadn't received proper notice. The Supreme Court rejected all of these arguments.

It first held that Hentges was clearly a fugitive for purposes of the rule. It next held that the state acted properly, even though it failed to make the motion until after the briefs were filed. Finally, it held that Hentges had plenty of notice that his appeal was at risk of being dismissed.

The Supreme Court did give Hentges one last chance. It remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, with directions to dismiss the appeal if Hentges doesn't turn himself in within the next ten days. If he's out there, that means he needs to turn himself in by April 12.

(Editor's note: While the case State of Indiana v. Dr. Richard Kimble was not cited by the Supreme Court, the rule adopted in this case was cited a number of times on the 1963-67 TV series The Fugitive. The fictional judges in the Kimble case would have been following Kirkman v. State, 232 Ind. 563 , 114 N.E.2d 878 (1953), one of the cases cited by the Minnesota Supreme Court.)

No. A12-0794 (Minn. April 2, 2014).

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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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