As 2017 comes to a close, I wanted to report to you on two challenges confronting the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. One is our impending decision on whether to charge a Minneapolis Police officer for shooting an unarmed woman and the second is our response to the devastating opioid crisis.
Most of you are aware that on the night of July 15, two officers responded to a 911 call by Justine Damond of a possible sexual assault occurring somewhere outside her South Minneapolis home. As the officers slowly drove through an alley, Damond, approached the car and Officer Mohamed Noor fired his gun, killing her.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigated the shooting. In September, the agency turned the case over to our office for consideration of charges against Officer Noor.
Many people in the county, the state, and Australia, where Ms. Damond was known as Justine Ruszczyk, have criticized this office for taking too long in what they consider to be an open and shut case.
However, there is good reason to take real care in our review to ensure we know exactly what happened and have the evidence to support our decision on whether or not to file charges. First, the laws governing the use of deadly force by a police officer are different than those that apply to a citizen firing a gun. The law requires us to view an officer's actions from the perspective of a reasonable peace officer, understanding that they must make split-second decisions. Second, in order to determine whether the actions were reasonable, we must know what happened before, during and after the fatal incident. As a result,we have been making sure we have all the necessary information to make our decision.
With regard to the opioid crisis, we are taking a three-pronged approach to the problem: prosecuting the heroin dealers, suing the large pharmaceutical companies and educating the public.
Under Minnesota law, anyone who provides an illegal drug to someone who subsequently dies from that drug can be charged with third-degree murder. We began filing those charges against drug dealers in 2007 when we prosecuted two cases and it stayed at that level for years. Last year, it jumped to five, including four separate charges against Beverly Burrell. This year, we are on pace to at least double that.
In November, the Hennepin County Board, at our urging, hired Minneapolis firm Briol & Benson along with Washington D.C. Counsel Linda Singer to file a lawsuit against the makers and distributors of opioid drugs. As was the case when Minnesota successfully sued the tobacco companies in the 1990s, we believe that the pharmaceuticals misled doctors and the public about their pain killing drugs. In addition, they did not inform federal authorities when they detected unusually large sales of their drugs in a city or state. We will be seeking millions of dollars in damages.
We also are exploring ways in which we can educate our citizens about the dangers of these drugs and prevent the addiction in the first place.
Police officers must be held accountable for their actions and this year we obtained a felony conviction against Minneapolis Police Officer Christopher Reiter for kicking a suspect in the face while the suspect was on his hands and knees. Three other officers have been charged in other cases and their trials will begin soon.
We have vigorously and successfully prosecuted racists and this year Allan Scarsella was sentenced to 15 years in prison for shooting and wounding five men peacefully protesting outside the 4th Precinct police station. In addition, Anthony Sawina was sentenced to 39 years in prison for shooting at five young Muslim men in a car in Dinkytown. This behavior is abhorrent and we will not rest until all racists understand that they may not attack others based on their race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.
The Civil Division of the county attorney’s office has won every hearing in support of a Minnesota law that prohibits signs, clothing or other political paraphernalia inside the polling place. After the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the law was constitutional in March and wearing “Please ID Me” buttons violated that law, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear that case. Dan Rogan, senior managing attorney of the Civil Division will travel to Washington, D.C. in late February to once again argue the case.
Finally, I was honored to be elected to a one-year term as president of the National District Attorney’s Association last July. It allows me to learn practices from other jurisdictions. In addition, I have the opportunity to share some of our best practices with other jurisdictions nationwide, bringing the good values of Hennepin County and Minnesota to others. Meanwhile, I truly believe that everyone in this office lives by our credo of doing the right thing every day and in everything we do – which is exactly what you should demand of us.
Hennepin County Attorney's Office