may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Timothy Patrick Horst,
Filed November 10, 1998
Reversed and remanded
Dakota County District Court
File No. K7972491
James C. Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Shirley A. Leko, Assistant County Attorney, 1560 West Highway 55, Hastings, MN 55033 (for appellant)
Mark D. Nyvold, 386 North Wabasha Street, Suite 654, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Harten, Judge.
Appellant State of Minnesota challenges the district court's sentencing order, arguing that the court improperly injected itself into the plea negotiations, improperly sentenced respondent Timothy Patrick Horst to lesser-included offenses, and failed to establish mitigating factors constituting "substantial and compelling circumstances" to justify a downward durational sentencing departure from the sentencing guidelines. Respondent, on the other hand, argues that the appeal is not properly before this court. We reverse and remand.
Respondent was charged by complaint in Dakota County with pattern harassment in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.749, subd. 5 (1996) (count I), second-degree burglary in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.582, subd. 2(a) (1996) (count II), and two counts of first-degree criminal damage to property in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.595, subd. 1(3) (1996) (counts III and IV). These charges arose out of a series of incidents involving respondent and his ex-girlfriend. All the charged crimes are felony-level offenses.
Over the objection of the prosecutor, the district court agreed to dismiss counts I and IV in exchange for respondent's guilty pleas to counts II and III. The district court "certified" count II (second-degree burglary) as a gross misdemeanor and count III (criminal damage to property) as a misdemeanor. After accepting respondent's guilty pleas, the district court stayed imposition of the sentence, and placed respondent on probation for four years--two consecutive two-year probationary terms. This appeal followed.
Because it was unclear whether the district court's order in this case was a pretrial order or a sentencing order, this court questioned jurisdiction in an order dated July 10, 1998. According to that order, appellant argued that the district court
impermissibly injected itself into plea negotiations and abused its discretion in accepting respondent's guilty pleas to a gross misdemeanor and misdemeanor offense.
In a special term order filed July 28, 1998, we accepted jurisdiction over this appeal, characterizing it as a felony sentencing appeal within the meaning of Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.04, subd. 1(2) (prosecuting attorney may appeal as of right to the court of appeals from any sentence stayed or imposed by the trial court in a felony case). Accordingly, the special term panel concluded that appellant timely filed the appeal within the 90-day period allowed for sentencing appeals.
Appellant argues that the district court improperly injected itself into the plea negotiations. We agree.
A district court has discretion to accept or reject a guilty plea over the objection of the prosecutor. State v. Gilmartin, 550 N.W.2d 294, 296 (Minn. App. 1996). Still, district courts are obliged not to "improperly inject" themselves into plea negotiations. State v. Moe, 479 N.W.2d 427, 429 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 10, 1992). The judge's role in handling a negotiated plea is delicate; it is important that the judge not undermine that role by becoming excessively involved in the negotiations. Id. (quoting State v. Johnson, 279 Minn. 209, 216 n.11, 156 N.W.2d 218, 223 n.11 (1968)). The judge functions as an independent examiner, not as a party to the negotiation. Id. A district court abandons its independent role if it offers a defendant a more lenient sentence in exchange for some performance. See, e.g., State v. Vahabi, 529 N.W.2d 359, 361 (Minn. App. 1995) (district court improperly injected itself into plea negotiations because parties to agreement were not prosecutor and defendant but rather district court and defendant); Moe, 479 N.W.2d at 429-30 (district court improperly injected himself into plea negotiations when he offered defendant reduced sentence in exchange for cooperating with police).
Here, in exchange for respondent's guilty pleas to counts II and III, the district court agreed to dismiss counts I and IV. The district court then "certified" count II as a gross misdemeanor and count III as a misdemeanor. All this was done over the objection of the prosecutor.
As in Vahabi, the district court imposed a plea agreement, including a sentence, over the objection of the prosecutor. Respondent's guilty pleas to counts II and III were "in exchange" for dismissal of counts I and IV. The district court abandoned its role as an independent examiner and instead undertook an active role in carving out a plea agreement. Thus, the district court usurped the role of the prosecutor and impermissibly injected itself into the plea negotiations in violation of the prohibition set out in Moe and Vahabi. Because the district court thereby abused its discretion, we vacate the sentences, respondent's guilty pleas, and the district court's dismissal of counts I and IV, and remand for further proceedings on the felony charges.
Given our disposition of the case, we decline to address appellant's claims that the district court improperly accepted guilty pleas to offenses of a lesser degree or that there were no "special and compelling circumstances" to justify a downward departure.
Reversed and remanded.
 The district court incorrectly "certified" respondent's felony-level offenses as a gross misdemeanor and a misdemeanor. According to Minn. Stat. § 609.131 (1996), a district court has the option to certify a misdemeanor offense as a petty misdemeanor. A district court cannot, however, certify a felony-level offense as a gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor. To reach such a result in a proper case, a district court may impose gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor "sentences" for respondent's felony convictions. See Minn. Stat. § 609.13, subd. 1 (1996) (notwithstanding felony conviction, if sentence imposed is for gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor, conviction is considered gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor).