This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Minnesota Department of Human Services, et al.,
Filed March 20, 2001
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 003018
Arlene Otis, 7900 Zane Avenue N., Apt. 312, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota 55443 (appellant pro se)
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Lisa C. Hahn-Cordes, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, 300 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55487 (for respondent Minnesota Department of Human Services, et al.)
Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Hanson, Judge.
Respondents terminated and later denied public assistance benefits to appellant Arlene Otis pursuant to 7 U.S.C. § 2015(k)(1) (Supp. 1999) and Minn. Stat. § 256D.24, subd. 3 (2000), both of which render “fleeing felons” ineligible for certain public assistance benefits. Appellant contends that respondents erroneously construed these statutes, violated their own rules, and denied her procedural due process. Appellant also argues that the statutes at issue violate several provisions of the state and federal constitutions. We disagree and affirm.
Minn. Stat. §§ 256D.01-.54 (2000) governs the distribution of general assistance benefits in Minnesota. County agencies, such as respondent Hennepin County Social Services, are responsible for administering such benefits within their respective jurisdictions according to the law and rules promulgated by the commissioner of respondent Minnesota Department of Human Services. Minn. Stat. § 256D.03, subd. 1 (2000). The commissioner also monitors federal food stamp delivery programs to ensure that each county agency complies with federal laws and regulations. Minn. Stat. § 393.07, subd. 10(a) (2000).
Both Minnesota and federal laws prohibit certain classes of persons from receiving benefits. Included among these classes are so-called “fleeing felons.” The Minnesota law states as follows:
An individual who is fleeing to avoid prosecution * * * for a crime that is a felony under the laws of the jurisdiction from which the individual flees * * * is ineligible to receive benefits under this chapter.
Minn. Stat. § 256D.024, subd. 3 (2000). A federal statute makes a similar prohibition:
No member of a household who is otherwise eligible to participate in the food stamp program shall be eligible to participate in the program as a member of that or any other household during any period during which the individual is (1) fleeing to avoid prosecution * * * for a crime * * * that is a felony under the law of the place from which the individual is fleeing * * *.
7 U.S.C. § 2015(k) (1999).
A county agency must require that an applicant or recipient provide documentation to verify eligibility. Minn. R. 9500.1215, subp. 1 (1999). The burden of providing documentation to verify eligibility for general assistance programs is on the applicant or recipient. Minn. Stat. § 256D.05, subd. 1(c) (2000). An aggrieved applicant or recipient has the right to request a fair hearing if the county agency denies or terminates benefits. Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subd. 3(a)(1) (2000); Minn. R. 9500.1211, subp. 4 (C), (D) (1999). Review by a district court and an appellate court is available following such a hearing. Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subds. 7, 9 (2000).
In September 1999, the Social Security Administration (SSA) notified appellant that her supplementary security income benefits would be terminated because the state of Illinois had issued a warrant for her arrest on a 1996 charge of felony theft and forgery. Appellant had failed to make pre-trial or trial appearances. The Illinois arrest warrant is issued for Arlene Otis, d/o/b November 19, 1948. Appellant does not dispute that the name, birth date, and social security number on the warrant belong to her.
In November 1999, respondents learned of the warrant through a computer interface with the SSA’s computer system. Respondents notified appellant that her food stamp, Minnesota supplemental assistance, and general assistance medical care benefits were being cancelled because of her status as a “fleeing felon.” Appellant then applied for general assistance and emergency assistance. Respondents denied the former request because of her “fleeing felon” status and the latter because she did not demonstrate that she had an emergency situation.
Appellant requested and received a hearing before a county agency referee. The referee determined that appellant was correctly categorized as a “fleeing felon” within the meaning of the statute because the out-of-state warrant for her arrest demonstrated that she is fleeing toavoid prosecution for a felony in that jurisdiction. The chief appeals referee affirmed the decision. Appellant then appealed to the district court, which upheld the referee’s construction of “fleeing felon.” The district court also held that statutes at issue were constitutional. This appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
Appellant argued below and suggests in her brief that respondents have improperly applied the “fleeing felon” statutes to her case because she has neither been tried nor convicted of committing a felony.
Statutory construction is a question of law, which an appellate court reviews de novo. See Brookfield Trade Ctr., Inc. v. County of Ramsey, 584 N.W.2d 390, 393 (Minn. 1998) (reserving de novo tax court’s interpretation of statutes). Application of a statute to undisputed facts involves a question of law; the decision of a trial court is not binding on a reviewing court. Boubelik v. Liberty State Bank, 553 N.W.2d 393, 402 (Minn. 1996).
Respondents argue that a person subject to an outstanding felony arrest warrant in another state constitutes a person who is “fleeing to avoid prosecution” within the meaning of the applicable statutes. See Lolling v. Midwest Patrol, 545 N.W.2d 372, 375 (Minn. 1996) (agency’s construction of a statute may be entitled to some weight when statutory language is technical and agency’s interpretation is of longstanding application). The plain language of the statutes supports respondents’ argument. See generally State ex rel. Graham v. Klumpp, 536 N.W.2d 613, 615 (Minn. 1995) (holding that no statutory construction is permitted where language of statute is plain and unambiguous). Thus, respondents’ interpretation of the term “fleeing felon” is valid.
Appellant also argues that respondents have not followed their own rules in determining that she is a “fleeing felon” within the meaning of the applicable statutes. Appellant cites a provision in an agency manual that states that an applicant or recipient who admits in writing to fleeing prosecution is ineligible for certain benefits. Seizing upon this provision, appellant asserts that prior to terminating her benefits and rejecting her application for new benefits, respondents are bound to obtain her written admission that she was fleeing. An advisory provision in a manual used by an agency can, in a particular case, be deemed to “approach” the status of a formal rule. Doe v. State, Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 257 N.W.2d 816, 819 (Minn. 1977). Also, agency actions can fit within the definition of a rule. See, e.g., White Bear Lake Care Ctr., Inc. v. Minnesota Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 319 N.W.2d 7, 8-9 (Minn. 1982) (agency practice of computing cost changes on per diem basis deemed agency rule).
Here, however, respondents point to another manual indicating that an agency may terminate the benefits of fleeing felons not only if it obtains a written admission of that status, but also if the county agency has reliable, verified documentation that the applicant or recipient is a fleeing felon. This policy squares with the agency’s duties to verify and review eligibility of applicants and recipients. See Minn. R. 9500.1215 (1999). Because a reviewing court affords substantial deference to an administrative agency in interpreting its own rules and regulations, St. Otto’s Home v. Minnesota Dep’t of Human Servs., 437 N.W.2d 35, 40 (Minn. 1989), it is appropriate to accept respondents’ interpretation. Thus, respondents did not violate their own rules in using an outside source to determine appellant’s eligibility for benefits, rather than obtaining a written admission that appellant is a “fleeing felon.”
The United States Supreme Court has recognized that, under the Due Process Clause, a recipient of public assistance benefits is entitled to a hearing prior to termination of those benefits. Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 264, 266, 90 S. Ct. 1011, 1018-19 (1970). The function of the required hearing is limited to
produc[ing] an initial determination of the validity of the welfare department’s grounds for discontinuance of payments in order to protect a recipient against an erroneous termination of his benefits.
Id. at 267, 90 S. Ct. at 1020. The recipient is entitled to
adequate notice detailing the reasons for a proposed termination, and an effective opportunity to defend by confronting any adverse witnesses and by presenting his own arguments and evidence orally.
Id. at 267-68, 90 S. Ct. at 1020. This is precisely what appellant received. Appellant was not denied procedural due process.
2. Alleged Constitutional Violations
A challenge to the constitutionality of a statute is a question of law, which an appellate court reviews de novo. In re Blilie, 494 N.W.2d 877, 881 (Minn. 1993).
Appellant argues that respondents should have sought judicial oversight concerning the legislation at issue. In Holmberg v. Holmberg, 588 N.W.2d 720, 724-26 (Minn. 1999), the supreme court used the following factors in determining whether an administrative scheme violates separation-of-powers principles: (1) whether the scheme usurps the original jurisdiction of the court; (2) whether the decision-maker makes inherently legal decisions; (3) whether there exists adequate judicial oversight of the administrative scheme; and (4) whether the administrative scheme impinges on the judiciary’s power to oversee the practice of law. Here, application of these factors does not demonstrate a separation-of-powers violation. The determination of eligibility is a factual, not a legal, determination that is the province of the county agency. The administrative scheme permits judicial review and does not require decision-makers who terminate benefits to engage in the practice of law. Accordingly, the administrative scheme does not infringe on separation of powers.
Under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1, the government must treat similarly situated persons alike. City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439, 105 S. Ct. 3249, 3254 (1985). Classifications relating to economic and social welfare, however, are upheld unless they lack a reasonable basis. Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485, 90 S. Ct. 1153, 1161 (1970). Thus, for example, a state does not violate the Equal Protection Clause by instituting a system whereby larger families receive fewer per capita public assistance benefits than smaller families, as the regulation is aimed at meeting legitimate state interests in effectively distributing such benefits. Id. at 484-487, 90 S. Ct. 1161-63.
Respondents assert that the government interest at stake in this classification is aimed at distributing benefits to those persons who will use them for legitimate purposes rather than financing a felon’s “life on the lam.” Similarly, the legislative history of the federal statute suggests that lawmakers were concerned that indiscriminate and uncapped distribution of welfare benefits might be contributing to crime in America. See H.R. Rep. No. 104-651 at 4 (“High rates of welfare dependency correlate with high crime rates among young men.”), 76 (1996) (suggesting amendment whereby those persons fleeing to avoid prosecution will not be eligible for food stamps), reprinted in 1996 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2183, 2185, 2210. As in Dandridge, these are legitimate governmental concerns for the effective distribution of welfare benefits.
The Due Process Clauses of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments contain a “substantive” component. Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 301-02, 113 S. Ct. 1439, 1447 (1993). The concept of substantive due process prevents government actors from interfering with certain rights found to be implicit in the concept of ordered liberty or in engaging in particularly egregious conduct. United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 746, 107 S. Ct. 2095, 2101 (1987). Thus, the government may not infringe on fundamental liberty interests unless the infringement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. Id. at 748, 107 S. Ct. at 2102.
There is no fundamental right to receive public benefits. See Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 608-611, 80 S. Ct. 1367, 1371-73 (1960) (person declared ineligible for social security benefits when deported had no “right” to benefit payments). And a legislative act having the effect of terminating such benefits will be upheld if rationally related to a legitimate government interest. Dandridge, 397 U.S. at 484-85, 90 S. Ct. at 1161. As discussed above, there is a rational relationship between denial of benefits to persons with outstanding criminal warrants and the government’s fair distribution of benefits to those persons considered to be most in need. Hence, the statutes do not violate substantive due process.
The United States Constitution precludes both the federal government and the states from enacting ex post factolaws. U.S. Const. art. I, §§ 9, cl. 3; 10, cl. 1. An ex post facto law is one that punishes as a crime an act previously committed that was innocent when done; that makes more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission; or that deprives one charged with a crime of any defense available according to law at the time when the act was committed. Collins v. Youngblood, 497 U.S. 37, 42, 110 S. Ct. 2715, 2719 (1990). The United States Supreme Court has long held that the prohibition on ex post facto laws applies only to criminal or penal laws that have retroactive effect. Id. at 41 n.2, 110 S. Ct. at 2719 n.2. Denial of economic assistance benefits based on eligibility criteria does not implicate a criminal or penal interest. See Flemming,363 U.S. at 613-21, 80 S. Ct. at 1374-78 (termination of social security benefits because recipient lost eligibility when he was deported does not implicate the punitive interest necessary to invoke the prohibition against ex post facto laws). Here, the statutes at issue declare that a person subject to outstanding warrants is ineligible for public economic assistance. The termination of public assistance benefits by its nature is not a criminal penalty and therefore cannot constitute an ex postfacto law.
The United States Constitution precludes both the federal government and the states from enacting bills of attainder. U.S. Const. art. I, §§ 9, cl. 3; 10, cl. 1. A bill of attainder is “a law that legislatively determines guilt and inflicts punishment upon an identifiable individual without provision of the protections of a judicial trial.” Nixon v. Administrator of Gen. Servs., 433 U.S. 425, 468, 97 S. Ct. 2777, 2803 (1977). A statute that identifies a group to be denied public benefits is not deemed punitive in nature and therefore is not a bill of attainder. See Flemming, 363 U.S. at 613-21, 80 S. Ct. at 1374-78 (statutory provision denying social security benefits to deported persons not punitive in nature and therefore not a bill of attainder). This concept applies particularly when the statute allows the assistance applicant to change her station such that she can comply with the statutory requirements. See Selective Serv. Sys. v. Minnesota Pub. Interest Research Group, 468 U.S. 841, 848-851, 104 S. Ct. 3348, 3353-54 (1984) (statute denying eligibility for educational benefits to persons who were required but failed to register for military draft was not bill of attainder where affected persons had ability to act affirmatively to regain eligibility). Here, it is not a punishment to terminate appellant’s public assistance benefits, and she has the ability to regain eligibility. The statutes in question are not bills of attainder.
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. Const. amend. V, prohibits the government from seeking a second prosecution for the same crime after acquittal, a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction, or multiple punishments for the same offense. North Carolina v. Pearce, 395 U.S. 711, 717, 89 S. Ct. 2072, 2076 (1969), overruled in part on other grounds by Alabama v. Smith, 490 U.S. 794, 803, 109 S. Ct. 2201, 2207 (1989). In asserting a claim that the government has violated the Double Jeopardy Clause, it is essential that the party must have been placed in jeopardy a first time. See Serfass v. United States, 420 U.S. 377, 388, 95 S. Ct. 1055, 1062 (1975) (“The Court has consistently adhered to the view that jeopardy does not attach, and the constitutional prohibition can have no application, until a defendant is ‘put to trial before the trier of facts, whether the trier be a jury or a judge.’” (citations omitted)). That has not occurred here. Moreover, even if appellant had been placed in jeopardy, the termination of public benefits is not punitive in nature, see Flemming, 363 U.S. at 613-21, 80 S. Ct. at 1374-78 (statutory provision denying social security benefits to deported persons not punitive in nature), a prerequisite to a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. See Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346, 369, 117 S. Ct. 2072, 2086 (1997).
3. Other Claims
Appellant appears to raise several other legal issues that are not fully developed in her brief. Because appellant does not present these issues with sufficient clarity, we reject them as lacking merit.
 Also, typically applied to activities of the executive branch, the government may not engage in conduct that “shocks the conscience.” County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846, 118 S. Ct. 1708, 1717 (1998). Appellant does not assert any such egregious conduct by a governmental actor.