State v. Stay, A18-0335

Decision Date13 November 2019
Docket NumberA18-0335
Citation935 N.W.2d 428
Parties STATE of Minnesota, Respondent, v. David Michael STAY, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Ian S. Birrell, Marc E. Betinsky, Gaskins Bennett & Birrell, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Edwin W. Stockmeyer, Assistant Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Joseph Jerome Walsh, Mille Lacs County Attorney, Milaca, Minnesota, for respondent.

OPINION

GILDEA, Chief Justice.

This appeal requires us to determine whether a defendant charged with first-degree manslaughter under Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2) (2018), must have reasonably foreseen that death or great bodily harm could result from the commission of a fifth-degree assault. Appellant David Stay was charged with first-degree manslaughter, and he asked the district court to instruct the jury that a conviction for first-degree manslaughter required proof that he committed fifth-degree assault with such force or violence that death or great bodily harm was reasonably foreseeable. The district court declined to give that instruction and Stay was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. On appeal, the court of appeals held that the district court did not err in declining to give the instruction and affirmed. Because we conclude that section 609.20(2) does not require the State to prove that death or great bodily harm was a reasonably foreseeable result when the underlying crime is fifth-degree assault, we affirm.

FACTS

This case arises from a May 13, 2016 altercation between Stay and the victim, David Taute, at a bar in Isle. Stay had been drinking beer at the bar and, at approximately 1 a.m., he went outside. Around the same time, Taute, who had also been drinking at the bar, came outside. Taute’s blood alcohol concentration at the time was estimated to be 0.26 and Stay admitted to feeling buzzed. Stay and Taute started to fight, and Stay punched Taute once in the jaw. Taute fell straight backwards, hit his head on cement, never moved or regained consciousness, and died within a few hours.

The medical examiner determined that Stay’s blow to Taute’s jaw and Taute’s head injury as a result of his fall to the cement caused Taute’s death. The examiner explained that Taute’s blood alcohol concentration also played a role in his death because it prevented Taute from breathing normally and maintaining a normal heart-rate rhythm.

Following Taute’s death, the State charged Stay with first-degree manslaughter, Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2), and first-degree assault, Minn. Stat. § 609.221 (2018). At trial, the jury heard from witnesses who were at the bar on the night of the event, medical personnel and experts, and police officers.

At Stay’s request, the district court instructed the jury on the lesser-included charge of fifth-degree assault, Minn. Stat. § 609.224 (2018). Stay also requested that the court instruct the jury that, in order to find him guilty of first-degree manslaughter, the jury must find that he committed a fifth-degree assault "with such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable." Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2). The State opposed the instruction, and the court declined to give the requested jury instruction.

The jury found Stay guilty of fifth-degree assault and first-degree manslaughter but found him not guilty of first-degree assault. The district court convicted Stay of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced him to 51 months in prison.

Stay appealed his conviction, claiming, in part, that the district court abused its discretion by denying his requested jury instruction. State v. Stay , 923 N.W.2d 355, 360 (Minn. App. 2019). The court of appeals affirmed. Id. at 366. The court held that Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2) is unambiguous and does not require the State to prove that death or great bodily harm is reasonably foreseeable when the predicate offense of first-degree manslaughter is fifth-degree assault. Id. at 360–62.

We granted Stay’s petition for review.

ANALYSIS

Stay argues that the plain language of the first-degree manslaughter statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2), requires the State to prove that death or great bodily harm was reasonably foreseeable when the criminal offense underlying the first-degree manslaughter charge is fifth-degree assault. Stay asserts that because reasonable foreseeability is an element of the manslaughter offense, the district court erred by not instructing the jury on this element. He contends that he is entitled to a new trial because the district court’s failure to give his requested jury instruction was prejudicial. The State argues that the instruction was not required.

We review a district court’s jury instructions for an abuse of discretion. State v. Mahkuk , 736 N.W.2d 675, 682 (Minn. 2007). A district court abuses its discretion "if it fails to properly instruct the jury on all elements of the offense charged." State v. Peltier , 874 N.W.2d 792, 797 (Minn. 2016) ("[J]ury instructions must fairly and adequately explain the law of the case and not materially misstate the law."). To determine whether the district court instructed the jury on all the elements of first-degree manslaughter, we must interpret the first-degree manslaughter statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2). Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review de novo. City of Oronoco v. Fitzpatrick Real Estate, LLC , 883 N.W.2d 592, 595 (Minn. 2016). And "[o]ur objective in statutory interpretation is to effectuate the intent of the legislature." State v. Riggs , 865 N.W.2d 679, 682 (Minn. 2015) (citing State v. Jones , 848 N.W.2d 528, 535 (Minn. 2014) ) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The first step in statutory interpretation is to determine whether the statute’s language is ambiguous. State v. Thonesavanh , 904 N.W.2d 432, 435 (Minn. 2017). When determining whether a statute is ambiguous, "words and phrases are construed according to rules of grammar and according to their common and approved usage." Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (2018). If "the legislature’s intent is clearly discernable from plain and unambiguous language, statutory construction is neither necessary nor permitted and [we] apply the statute’s plain meaning." Am. Tower, L.P. v. City of Grant , 636 N.W.2d 309, 312 (Minn. 2001).

Stay was convicted of first-degree manslaughter under Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2). A person commits first-degree manslaughter when the person:

violates section 609.224[1 ] and causes the death of another or causes the death of another in committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor offense with such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable, and murder in the first or second degree was not committed thereby[.]

Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2).

In other words, section 609.20(2) sets out two ways in which a person may be convicted of first-degree manslaughter. A person commits first-degree manslaughter under paragraph 2 when the conduct "violates section 609.224 and causes the death of another" ("fifth-degree assault clause"). Id. Alternatively, a person commits first-degree manslaughter if the person "causes the death of another in committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor offense" ("misdemeanor-offense clause"). Id. Directly following the misdemeanor-offense clause is the reasonably-foreseeable modifier: "with such force and violence that death of or great bodily harm to any person was reasonably foreseeable." Id.

The question in this case is whether the reasonably-foreseeable modifier applies to the fifth-degree assault clause. Stay argues that it does and contends that the reasonably-foreseeable modifier applies to both the fifth-degree assault clause and the misdemeanor-offense clause. The State argues that the modifier applies only to the latter clause. We agree with the State.

The text of the statute makes clear that the reasonably-foreseeable modifier applies only to the misdemeanor-offense clause. As explained earlier, a person can commit first-degree manslaughter in two different ways: committing fifth-degree assault, Minn. Stat. § 609.224, or "committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor offense." Minn. Stat. § 609.20(2). With each predicate offense, the Legislature includes a requirement that the underlying crime, either fifth-degree assault or some other misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, cause the death of another. By repeating the harm language ("causes the death of another"), the Legislature articulated two separate forms of first-degree manslaughter. Id. And the reasonably-foreseeable modifier comes only after the second form of manslaughter. Id. If the reasonably-foreseeable modifier applied to both forms of first-degree manslaughter, there would be no reason for the Legislature to include the "causes the death of another" language twice. See id. In other words, if Stay’s interpretation were correct, the statute would read: a person commits first-degree manslaughter when the person causes the death of another with such force and violence that death or great bodily harm is reasonably foreseeable and the person commits fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor, or a gross misdemeanor. But, the statute does not say that.2

Stay argues, however, that we should adopt his interpretation based on the series-qualifier rule of grammar. See Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (explaining that courts should use rules of grammar and common usage when interpreting statutes). Under the series-qualifier rule, "[w]hen there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies to the entire series." Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 147 (2012). Stay argues that this rule applies because the omission of a comma before the "or" separating the fifth-degree assault clause from the misdemeanor-offense clause...

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