Hernandez v. State, A20-0023

Decision Date08 June 2020
Docket NumberA20-0023
PartiesEliseo Nmn Hernandez, petitioner, Appellant, v. State of Minnesota, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Court of Appeals

This opinion will be unpublished and may not be cited except as provided by Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2018).

Affirmed

Larkin, Judge

Dakota County District Court

File No. 19HA-CR-17-2678

Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Sara L. Martin, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)

Keith Ellison, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and

James C. Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Heather Pipenhagen, Assistant County Attorney, Hastings, Minnesota (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Connolly, Presiding Judge; Larkin, Judge; and Rodenberg, Judge.

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

LARKIN, Judge

After a court trial, the district court found appellant guilty of two counts of assault and entered judgments of conviction. Appellant petitioned for postconviction relief, arguing that the district court had failed to consider his self-defense claim. The postconviction court summarily denied his petition. We affirm.

FACTS

In 2017, appellant Eliseo Hernandez went to a bar with friends and became intoxicated.1 The bar's night manager, D.H., told Hernandez that he was "cut-off." D.H. attempted to escort Hernandez out of the bar and was walking next to him when Hernandez turned and punched D.H. in the eye. The punch caused swelling and bruising. The bar's general manager, J.G., saw the unprovoked punch and rushed to help. J.G. wrestled Hernandez to the ground and held him until he calmed down and agreed to leave. When J.G. released Hernandez, Hernandez punched the bar's security guard, A.C., chipping his tooth. J.G. restrained Hernandez until police arrived. The state charged Hernandez with third-degree and fifth-degree assault.

The district court held a court trial, and Hernandez represented himself. Although the prosecutor requested notice of any self-defense claim and Hernandez failed to provide such notice, Hernandez mentioned self-defense in his opening statement and provided testimony suggesting that he acted in self-defense. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 9.02, subd. 1(5)(requiring a defendant to inform the prosecutor in writing of a self-defense claim upon request of the prosecutor). Hernandez testified that someone grabbed him from behind and dragged him to the bar's exit. He was "pretty sure" it was D.H. According to Hernandez's testimony, J.G. then joined the fray and choked Hernandez until he was unconscious. When Hernandez woke, he was surrounded by five people who were "encroaching," so he "threw a punch." On cross-examination, Hernandez admitted that he was "pretty drunk" and did not know whom he punched or why he punched that person. The district court found Hernandez guilty of both counts of assault, without expressly discussing self-defense in its verdict order.

Hernandez petitioned for postconviction relief, arguing that the district court had erred by failing to consider his self-defense claim. The postconviction court ruled that Hernandez was not entitled to consideration of his self-defense claim because: (1) the district court was "not required to provide sua sponte a self-defense instruction," (2) Hernandez did not provide the district court or state with written notice of the defense, and (3) Hernandez was the aggressor and therefore "disqualified from receiving a self-defense instruction." The postconviction court noted that "[e]yewitness testimony established the aggressive—even unprovoked—assaultive behavior of [Hernandez]," as set forth in the district court's findings of fact. This appeal followed.

DECISION
I.

"[Appellate courts] review a postconviction court's summary denial of a petition for postconviction relief for an abuse of discretion." Andersen v. State, 913 N.W.2d 417, 422(Minn. 2018). "A postconviction court abuses its discretion when its decision is based on an erroneous view of the law or is against logic and the facts in the record." Id. (quotation omitted).

In Minnesota, a person may use reasonable force to defend himself against an assault. Minn. Stat. § 609.06, subd. 1(3) (2016). The supreme court has read section 609.06, subdivision 1(3), to include four elements:

(1) the absence of aggression or provocation on the part of the defendant; (2) the defendant's actual and honest belief that he or she was in imminent danger of bodily harm; (3) the existence of reasonable grounds for that belief; and (4) the absence of a reasonable possibility of retreat to avoid the danger.

State v. Devens, 852 N.W.2d 255, 258 (Minn. 2014) (quotation omitted). If a defendant asserts that his actions were in self-defense and presents evidence supporting that assertion, the state must disprove, beyond a reasonable doubt, at least one of the aforementioned elements. Id.

Hernandez contends that the district court committed reversible error by failing to consider his self-defense claim. We disagree. The district court's findings show that it accepted testimony that Hernandez was the aggressor and rejected Hernandez's self-defense testimony. See State v. Al-Naseer, 788 N.W.2d 469, 473 (Minn. 2010) (stating that the trier of fact is best positioned to determine credibility and weigh the evidence). For example, the district court found that D.H. "attempted to escort [Hernandez] out of the premises and was walking side by side with [him]" when Hernandez "turned and struck [D.H.] with his right fist." D.H. testified consistently with this finding, as did J.G., whodid not see D.H. do anything to provoke Hernandez's attack. The district court also found that after Hernandez was released by J.G., promised to leave, and walked toward the door, Hernandez turned and punched the security guard, A.C., in the face. A.C.'s testimony supports this finding. And D.H. described Hernandez's act of striking A.C. as a "sucker punch."

In addition, at trial, the district court acknowledged that Hernandez had "raised an issue of self-defense." Although the district court questioned whether Hernandez had properly preserved the issue, the court discussed trial testimony refuting a self-defense claim, specifically, testimony showing that Hernandez was the aggressor. The court stated that "in one case [Hernandez's act] was described as a sucker punch, and in the other case it was described as a cold-cock." The district court's verdict and findings reflect its acceptance of those descriptions, as well as an implicit finding rejecting Hernandez's self-defense claim. See State v. Oanes, 543 N.W.2d 658, 663 (Minn. App. 1996) (holding that district court's failure, following a court trial, to specifically address entrapment defense was not fatal, but rather required an implicit finding consistent with the guilty verdict).

In sum, the district court's findings and statements at trial indicate that it considered and rejected Hernandez's self-defense claim, reasoning that Hernandez was the aggressor. Thus, the postconviction court did not abuse its discretion by denying Hernandez's postconviction petition based upon its determination that Hernandez was the aggressor and therefore not entitled to claim self-defense. If a defendant is not entitled to a defense, failing to submit that defense for the fact-finder's consideration is not erroneous. State v. Pendleton, 567 N.W.2d 265, 270 (Minn. 1997).

Hernandez relies on jury-instruction caselaw and argues that the district court was obligated to view the evidence of self-defense in a light most favorable to him. "In evaluating whether a rational basis exists in the evidence for a jury instruction, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the party requesting the instruction." State v. Edwards, 717 N.W.2d 405, 410 (Minn. 2006). Reliance on caselaw regarding jury instructions is illogical because the charges here were tried to the court, and not to a jury. Thus, the district court was required to decide both whether Hernandez was entitled to raise a self-defense claim and if so, whether the state had disproved the claim beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court's findings and the postconviction court's explanation establish their consideration and rejection of Hernandez's self-defense claim on the merits.

Because we conclude that the postconviction court did not err by rejecting Hernandez's self-defense claim on the merits, we do not analyze the postconviction court's alternative determination that Hernandez failed to provide adequate notice of that defense.

II.

In a pro se supplemental brief, Hernandez raises additional arguments. He asserts that the judge failed to "respond within a time limit," apparently referencing the timing of the postconviction court's order. Hernandez suggests that the order must be "withdrawn." The record indicates that the postconviction court did not timely receive the postconviction petition due...

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