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Minnesota Supreme Court reverses decision in Lester Prairie blight case
Jan. 30, 2017

By Ivan Raconteur
Editor

LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Lester Prairie, like most cities, occasionally deals with blight issues.

One recent case in which the city enforced its blight ordinance went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

According to court documents, the case began when Lester Prairie Police Chief Robert Carlson, during a routine blight inspection Sept. 5, 2014, saw a maroon Oldsmobile parked in Renee Vasko’s front yard. The car’s registration tabs had expired in 2012. Carlson determined the vehicle violated Lester Prairie’s blight ordinance.

Carlson attempted to contact Vasko to notify her of the violation.

He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He sent a notice through regular mail, but received no reply. Sept. 11, 2014, he sent a notice by certified mail, but it was returned undelivered. Finally, Sept. 29, 2014, Carlson posted a notice on the door of Vasko’s house.

The notice stated that the car was in violation of the blight ordinance, instructed Vasko to remedy the condition within 10 days, and informed her the city would tow the car if it remained in her yard “after 30 days of service,” according to court documents.

The city towed Vasko’s car Oct. 24, 2014.

The state charged Vasko with violating Lester Prairie Municipal Code section 5.5.1.2, which is a misdemeanor.

Before trial, the prosecutor certified the offense as a petty misdemeanor. The prosecutor may take that action if he does not seek incarceration, and seeks a fine at or below the statutory maximum for a petty misdemeanor.

District court

Vasko represented herself in district court.

During the bench trial, Vasko testified that she moved her car into the garage about a week after she saw the notice posted on her door. She testified that she moved the car out of the garage Oct. 23 so her mechanic could tow it.

Vasko claimed the city had given her permission to park her car in the yard during this period.

One of Vasko’s exhibits at trial was what appeared to be an Oct. 10, 2014 letter from the city clerk of Lester Prairie, granting Vasko permission to park her car in her yard from Oct. 23 to Oct. 25, 2014.

The city clerk testified she did not send the letter, the signature was not in her handwriting, and she had been on vacation Oct. 10, 2014.

The district court found Vasko guilty of violating the blight ordinance.

The court stated: “Having considered the defendant’s testimony, along with that of the chief and the city clerk, the court rejects the defendant’s evidence. It appears to the court that the defendant fabricated much, if not all, of the evidence purporting to show an agreement by the city to accommodate her attempts to repair the car.”

Court of appeals

A divided panel of the court of appeals reversed the district court decision.

Vasko asserted that the state did not present sufficient evidence to support her conviction.

The court of appeals determined that the city’s blight ordinance was ambiguous because it did not make clear how long a blight condition had to exist before the city could give notice requiring the owner of the property to remove it.

The court concluded that the state had not proven that the city gave Vasko the requisite notice. Because it resolved the appeal on the insufficient evidence claim, the court did not address Vasko’s other arguments “regarding the city’s procedure and the discredited evidence she submitted at trial.”

Supreme Court

The state appealed the decision of the court of appeals, and the Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for review.

The state argued that the court of appeals should not have considered whether the ordinance was ambiguous because the parties did not raise the issue of ambiguity in their briefs.

The Supreme Court held that the appeals court did not err in first interpreting the ordinance before addressing whether the state presented sufficient evidence to convict Vasko of a violation of the ordinance.

The court noted: When interpreting a statute, “we give words and phrases their plain and ordinary meaning.”

The ordinance

The Lester Prairie blight ordinance has two main sections. The first, section 5.5.1, applies only to storage of junk vehicles and scrap metal.

It provides: “It shall be unlawful for any person . . . occupying or owning private property within the City of Lester Prairie to keep or permit to be kept any junked or abandoned vehicles or other scrap metal on such property . . . for a period in excess of 30 days without a special use permit granted by the city council.”

The second section, 5.5.2, governs a wider range of conditions it identifies as “causes of blight or blighting factors,” including junk vehicles, accumulated trash, dilapidated structures, and poisonous plants.

This section requires city officials to give written notice to the property owner or occupant to remove a blight condition within 10 days of receiving notice. This section also authorizes the city to remove the blight condition if the property owner does not comply with the notice.

According to court documents, Vasko argues the two sections should be read together.

The state notes that Vasko was charged with violating only the first section, and the plain language prohibits a person from keeping a car with expired registration tabs on her property for more than 30 days, and that it does not require any notice requirement.

The Supreme Court concluded that the Lester Prairie blight ordinance creates two separate misdemeanor offenses.

“On its face, section 5.5.1 is a self-contained ordinance. It includes a statement of purpose, definitions, a prohibition, and a penalty provision making it a misdemeanor to violate this ordinance.”

“Similarly, section 5.5.2 contains its own purpose statement, prohibitions, and a penalty provision making a violation of this ordinance a misdemeanor.”

Nothing in section 5.5.1 suggests that the city must give a property owner notice before the owner is in violation of this section.

Conclusions

The court stated “We conclude that section 5.5.1.2 is subject to only one reasonable interpretation. The unambiguous language of the ordinance does not require the city to give notice of an abandoned vehicle to the person violating the ordinance. Instead, the plain language of section 5.5.1.2 unambiguously prohibits a person from keeping a junked or abandoned vehicle or other scrap metal on the person’s property for more than 30 days without a special use permit.”

The court then considered whether the state presented sufficient evidence to prove that Vasko violated section 5.5.1.2.

The court concluded the vehicle was considered an abandoned vehicle under Lester Prairie’s ordinance, and the state presented evidence that is sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the car was in Vasko’s yard for longer than 30 days.

In conclusion Jan. 18, the court stated “We reverse the court of appeals’ decision that reversed Vasko’s conviction. Because the court of appeals did not address all of Vasko’s arguments on appeal, we remand for further consideration of any remaining challenges to the conviction.”

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