IN COURT OF APPEALS
Jonathan David Eakins,
Filed August 29, 2006
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 05000513
Inz, Gregerson, Rosow, Johnson & Nilan, Ltd., 1600
Howard S. Carp, Borkon, Ramstead,
Mariani, Fishman & Carp, Ltd.,
Teresa Nelson, Legal Counsel,
Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; and Wright, Judge.
S Y L L A B U S
1. Minn. Stat. § 169.444, subd. 6 (2004), which imposes petty-misdemeanor liability on an owner of a motor vehicle that is used to violate the school-bus-safety law by being driven in disregard to a bus’s flashing red lights and extended stop-signal arm, is rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose of protecting school children on or near roadways and does not violate due process.
2. The statute does not create a presumption that the owner of a motor vehicle that violates the school-bus-safety law was the driver of that vehicle, does not shift the burden of proof to the defendant, and does not require the defendant to testify against himself.
3. The evidence was sufficient to show both a violation of the school-bus-safety law and the identity of the registered owner of the violating vehicle.
O P I N I O N
Appellant Jonathan David Eakins was cited for owning a motor vehicle that failed to stop at the warning lights and stop-signal arm of a school bus. On appeal, he argues that the statute is unconstitutional because it violates the owner’s right to due process by creating an irrebuttable presumption or an irrational rebuttable presumption that the owner of the car was the driver, or by criminalizing car ownership generally. He also argues that his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated during the evidentiary hearing. We affirm.
about 3:50 p.m. on October 28, 2004, school-bus driver Alexander Karisik
stopped his bus on a public street in
Eakins pleaded not guilty and moved to dismiss the charge. The court denied the motion, held a bench trial, and found Eakins guilty of the petty misdemeanor of being the owner of a violating vehicle. On appeal, Eakins challenges his conviction and the constitutionality of that portion of the statute that penalizes the owner of a vehicle for a violation of the school-bus-safety law.
3. Was Eakins compelled to testify at the evidentiary hearing to prove that he was not the owner of the motor vehicle and was the evidence sufficient to show Eakins was the owner of the vehicle?
4. Was the evidence sufficient to establish a violation of section 169.444 (2004)?
Constitutionality of the Law
Stat. § 169.444, subd. 6 (2004), provides that if a motor vehicle is
operated so as to violate the school-bus-safety law by not stopping when a
bus’s red lights are flashing and its stop-signal arm is extended, “the owner
of the vehicle . . . is guilty of a petty
misdemeanor.” The law provides
exceptions if another person is convicted of the violation or if the vehicle
Eakins contends that the law is unconstitutional in that it denies due process by creating an improper presumption or by criminalizing motor-vehicle ownership. He argues that the statute creates a presumption “that the owner of the vehicle was the driver at the time of the violation.” He also urges that the law unconstitutionally forces the owner of a violating motor vehicle to testify against himself.
relies almost entirely on criminal-caselaw authorities and principles of
criminal law in support of his arguments.
we interpret petty-misdemeanor traffic regulations not as criminal statutes but
“as we would interpret a public health and safety statute, that is, liberally
to ‘effect [its] purpose.’” State v. Jones, 649 N.W.2d 481, 484
(Minn. App. 2002) (quoting State v.
Bissonette, 445 N.W.2d 843, 845 (
constitutionality of a statute is purely a question of law, which is reviewed
de novo on appeal. State v. Wright, 588 N.W.2d 166, 168 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Feb. 24, 1999). Statutes are presumptively constitutional and
“should be declared unconstitutional only when absolutely necessary.” Estate
of Jones by Blume v. Kvamme, 529 N.W.2d 335, 337 (
the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the
will fail rational basis review only when it rests on grounds irrelevant to the
achievement of a plausible governmental objective.”
Eakins argues that, before the statute in question can “be constitutional, there must be some rational connection linking the status of an owner (not the status as a motorist) with the activity of illegally passing a bus.”
We can discern the broad purpose of section 169.444 (2004) through labels and content. The section is titled “Safety of school children; Duties of other drivers.” Subdivision 1, describing the duty to stop, is titled “Children getting on or off school bus.” The statute requires drivers to stop for school buses when children are getting on or off and provides penalties for the failure to do so. Thus, the aim of the statute is to protect school children from being struck by motor vehicles when the children are on or near streets and highways because they are entering or leaving school buses.
Eakins does not seem to quarrel with the obvious broad safety purpose of the statute but rather he disputes the connection of that purpose to the mere status of being a vehicle owner who might not also have been the driver who violated the school bus safety duties.
The school-bus-safety law in section 169.444 can be violated only through the instrumentality of a motor vehicle. The law encourages drivers to take special precautions when children are on or near a road by sanctioning the failure to do so. But the owner of a motor vehicle might allow another to operate it, and the operator might do so unsafely. By sanctioning the owner, if the driver cannot be held accountable, the law encourages owners of motor vehicles to allow usage by only those operators who are law-abiding and who will not likely violate safety laws. It further encourages owners to instruct operators to be careful and to obey traffic laws. The aim of the statute is to protect the safety of school children. By applying its reach to both the user of the instrumentality that can harm those children and the owner who can decide who shall be allowed to be a user, the legislature has taken a clearly rational measure to discourage the unsafe operation of motor vehicles while school children are getting on and off school buses. Put more bluntly, the owner of a car is more likely to withhold use of that car from an unsafe driver if the owner knows that he can be held civilly responsible for certain traffic violations of the driver. And, of course, without the instrumentality of the motor vehicle being operated by an unsafe driver in the presence of school children, the children are protected at least from one significant danger.
With respect to Eakins’s contention that the statute “criminalizes” mere car ownership, we reiterate that the statute provides no criminal penalty for the owner and note that the statute sanctions only car usage but also imposes liability on both the actual user and the party who made the use possible. There is no penalty for mere ownership of a motor vehicle.
Eakins contends that the statute creates an unconstitutionally impermissible presumption that he, as owner of the vehicle, was also the driver. The statute creates no presumption whatsoever, but rather reaches two classes of individuals connected with the instrumentality used to violate the law, namely, the actual user of the instrumentality and the owner who has the right to allow or disallow the use of the instrumentality. No presumption arises under the statute as to either class, and there is no vicarious liability imposed. The owner is penalized, not vicariously but directly, because his instrumentality was used to violate the law.
Eakins’s final constitutional challenge is that section 169.444 shifts the burden of proof to the owner to prove that he is not guilty and compels him to testify against himself. The statute requires the state to prove a violation of the statute and the identity of the owner of the vehicle used to violate the statute. The owner has no burden of proof at all. But he may by way of defense show that he was not the owner of the vehicle, or that the vehicle was stolen, or that another has already been convicted of the violation, or he may present evidence as to the identity of the likely driver. Furthermore, he may challenge the vehicle-identification evidence without actually testifying. We find nothing in this law that requires an owner to prove anything or to testify against himself. Rather, he has all the same options any defendant charged with violating a statute has, including applicable affirmative defenses.
Sufficiency of the Evidence
Eakins challenges his conviction, arguing that “there was a sketchy identification of the defendant’s alleged motor vehicle.” He questions the accuracy and the reliability of the testimony of the bus driver who discarded both his notes and his tape-recorded description before the trial.
court applies the same standard regarding the sufficiency of the evidence to
the review of a trial without a jury as it does to a jury trial. State v.
Totimeh, 433 N.W.2d 921, 924 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. Feb. 22, 1988). Our review is limited to a painstaking
analysis of the record to determine whether the evidence, when viewed in the
light most favorable to the determination, was sufficient to allow the fact-finder
to make that determination. State v. Webb, 440 N.W.2d 426, 430 (
Eakins notes that the evidence showed that the weather and lighting conditions were poor and the bus driver “was obviously distracted.” He also indicates that it was raining, the roads were wet, and the bus driver testified that he believed the driver had enough time to stop but did not attempt to do so. He argues that these facts raise an issue of whether the driver had some impediment to seeing the stop-signal arm and the suggestion that the court would have to assume that the driver saw the arm and chose to ignore it.
was evidence that the bus’s flashing red lights were on and the stop-signal arm
was extended well before the car approached the bus, that the car did not stop,
that the bus driver saw and copied down the license number, and that Eakins was
the registered owner of that car. There
was sufficient evidence to establish the elements of the charge beyond a
reasonable doubt. Eakins raises
conjecture as to credibility, but he shows no reason as to why or how the court
might have resolved credibility issues improperly. Furthermore, credibility determinations are
the exclusive province of the district court and will not be disturbed on
appeal absent a showing of clear error. DeMars v. State, 352 N.W.2d 13, 16 (
D E C I S I O N
Minn. Stat. § 169.444, subd.
6(a) (2004), does not create a presumption that the owner of the vehicle was
the driver of the car, nor does it criminalize car ownership generally. Because this statute is rationally related to
the legitimate government interest of protecting school children riding school
buses, it does not violate a defendant’s due-process rights under both