September 24, 2021

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Understanding the interpretation of criminal attempt statute concerning the case of State v. DegrootUnderstanding the interpretation of criminal attempt statute concerning the case of State v. Degroot

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This article is written by Sakshi Singh, from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. Through this article, an effort has been made to understand the interpretation of criminal attempts and the result of misinterpretation of the statute. 

Table of Contents

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We often get confused while reading a provision that what exactly the particular provision contains, mere understanding of a plain text is not going to help, we need to understand what is the true sense of the legislature behind drafting a provision. The Supreme Court of Minnesota in State v. Degroot (2020) explained that a plain reading of the state’s attempt statute has shown that it does not incorporate the elements of an attempt set out in a case of State v. Dumas, 1997. Degroot’s case not only broadened the scope of criminal attempt liability in Minnesota but also illustrated the irrational results of plain reading as a method of interpretation.

A criminal attempt is when a person intentionally tries to commit a crime but fails to do so. Mere effort towards the commission of a crime will be counted as a criminal attempt. In other words, it is an inchoate crime where a person with the intention to commit a crime undertakes any steps in furtherance of that crime but ultimately fails.

Ex. A holding a gun, intentionally tried to kill B, when pulled the trigger found out that the gun has no bullet in it and therefore he failed to kill B. A will be guilty of an attempt to murder.

There are certain requirements needed to be fulfilled for the conviction of a criminal attempt:

  1. Intention to commit a crime.
  2. The Substantial step was taken towards the commission of crime beyond preparation.
  3. An attempt to commit an offence.

The case is well known for the misinterpretation of a Minnesota attempt statute; the court took a major misstep while giving reasoning to this case. Here, in this case, A person named Degroot was convicted of attempted criminal sexual conduct in the third degree; electronic solicitation of a child to engage in sexual conduct; and electronic distribution of any material, language, or communication that relates to or describes sexual conduct towards a child. This case created so much confusion around the phrase “a substantial step and more than a preparation for” the commission of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. The Court of Appeal partially reversed the ruling that the district court had violated Sections 609.04 and 609.035. The Supreme Court partially overturned, ruling that the state presented sufficient evidence to support the attempted conviction; the offense of electronic solicitation necessarily includes the offense of electronic distribution, and the state has proven that the electronic solicitation conviction and the attempted third-degree sexual assault conviction were not part of a single behavioral incident.

Courts, by giving a plain reading of Minnesota’s attempted statute, concluded that one doesn’t need to prove that a substantial step occurred at the time and place of the contemplated crime because there was no mention of the notion of place in the plain text of the statute. 

State v. Dumas

This case is well known as the Minnesota test case of criminal attempt, the court has widely relied on this case when considering the sufficiency of the evidence in attempted criminal convictions. The supreme court held in this case – To constitute an attempt to commit a crime, there must be an intention to commit it, followed by an overt act or acts tending and an unaccomplishment of a crime. There must be something more than mere preparation, so close from the time and place of the planned crime; but if they are not so remote, and are made with the specific intention of committing the crime, and did some act in furtherance of that crime, they are sufficient to justify a conviction.

Facts of State v. Degroot 

  • In February 2017, the Cyber Crimes Against Children Task Force conducted an undercover operation in Worthington to investigate internet crimes against children. Special Agent John Nordberg made a fake profile of a 14-year-old boy named “Johnny” on an online dating app. Because the online dating application’s policies require its users to be 18 years old, Johnny’s age was listed as 18.
  • The appellant Darren Degroot emailed Johnny from his home in Edgerton. Special Agent Nordberg, posing as Johnny, responded.
  • Degroot quickly began to question Johnny about his sexual experiences and preferences. Within 10 minutes Johnny wrote, “I’m 14, is that ok with you? Degroot replied, “Oh wow u r young.” As their electronic communication continued, the sexual nature of their conversation quickly intensified. During the first 30 minutes of their conversation, Degroot sent Johnny several unsolicited photographs of his private part and he asked Johnny for photos in return.
  • Degroot expressed his sexual interest. Degroot inquired about where Johnny normally lived and said he was interested in meeting later that day for a sexual encounter.
  • Degroot and Johnny had agreed to meet in the afternoon. Degroot asked Johnny if he was preparing for anal sex, specifically asking him if he knew how to use an enema and if he had personal lubrication. Degroot said he could bring “supplies”.
  • Johnny ended their conversation around noon. Thirty minutes later, Johnny announced he was back online and again confirmed he was 14  if it was okay. After 15 minutes Degroot replied, “Yeah, it’s okay, mate.”
  • Degroot left Edgerton to reach Worthington, which is approximately 40 miles. During the ride, Degroot continued to send fetishized messages to Johnny with updates on his location. When Degroot arrived in Worthington, Johnny used landmarks to direct Degroot to his aunt’s house. Johnny said, “The parking lot is right at the end of the street. Johnny confirmed the relative location of his house a second time and said the door was open. Degroot asked: “Ford Taurus in the garage?” Johnny said yes.
  • Meanwhile, the Worthington Police Department sent an undercover arrest team to the location of the decoy. Officers observing Degroot in the park got out of his car and walked towards the house, carrying a plastic shopping bag. They arrested Degroot while he was still in the parking lot. Degroot’s bag contained personal lubricant, an enema bottle, a long-handled spoon, and a belt.
  • The cops put three charges on Degroot, attempted criminal sexual conduct in the third degree; electronic solicitation of a child to engage in sexual conduct; and electronic distribution of any material, language, or communication that relates to or describes sexuality conducted towards a child.

Arguments 

On appeal, Degroot argued that the state had insufficient evidence to convict him of a criminal attempt, which requires an act to prove that there is “a substantial step and more than a preparation for” the commission of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He also argued that the district court violated Section 609.04 of the Minnesota statute when he was sentenced for both the offense of electronic solicitation and the offense of electronic distribution. 

Degroot, by referring to Dumas’s case, argued that the phrase “more than preparation for” in the Minnesota Attempts Statute incorporated Dumas’s findings and therefore required the state “to prove that a substantial step occurred at the time and in the place of the intended crime ”. But the court disagreed.

Further, he contended that his preparatory acts did not result in an attempt because he “did not take any further step towards the commission of the intended sexual conduct while on the property where the sexual conduct had to take place.

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The State argues that the phrase “more than the preparation for” does not require it to prove that a substantial step occurred at the time and place of the contemplated crime because there was no mention of the notion of place in the plain text of the statute, the majority of jurisdictions that have considered the issue in question concluded that an agreement to meet a minor at a designated time and place, traveling to that location with supplies may satisfy the element of substantial attempt even though the sexual conduct happened elsewhere.

In support of his argument, Degroot argued that the unambiguous language of the Attempt statute, Minn. Section.609.17, requires the state to prove four elements. First, the accused intended to commit a crime. Second, the defendant has taken a considerable step in degree, amount, or extent towards the commission of the intended crime. Third, the step was not part of the process of preparing to commit the intended crime. And the last, if there is any step that took place at the location of the intended crime. The State argues that the unambiguous language of the Attempt Act does not require the defendant to take a significant step at the location of the intended crime.

The language of the Minnesota Attempt Statute Minn. Section 609.17, subd. 1 reads whosoever, with intent to commit a crime, commits an act which is a substantial step towards, and more than preparation for committing the crime is guilty of an attempt to commit that crime.

Opinion of the courts 

The District Court convicted Degroot of attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct under Minn.Section 609.343, electronically soliciting, and electronically distributing sexual material under Minn. Section 609.352, subd. 2a. The Court of Appeal concluded that the State presented sufficient evidence to support Degroot’s Conviction.

The court determined that Degroot had committed attempted third-degree criminal sexual conduct when he reached Johnny’s residence in Worthington, and this was well supported by the evidence. It specifically talked about the particular phrase in the statute which says that “substantial step forward and more than preparation” for the commission of criminal attempt, Degroot communicating with sexual intent all along the way through electronic communication was sufficient to prove the step was taken forward and more than a preparation for the commission of the crime. The court ignored Dumas’s case entirely because the plain reading of the statute did not reveal any ambiguity.

Degroot used electronic means to solicit a child in sexual conduct by sending him unsolicited photographs that mean electronically distributing material that relates or describes sexual conduct.

Now the question arose before the court if Degroot’s electronic solicitation sentence violated the Minn. Stat. Section 609.035. Section 609.035 of Minn. Statute says that if a person’s conduct constitutes more than one offense under the laws of that state, the person may be punished for only one of the offenses. 

By applying Section 609.035, the court ruled that Degroot can be convicted of both crimes if the crime constitutes a separate criminal act and to determine if the single intention of crimes formed a part of a single behaviour incident, we have to check whether the crime was contemplated at the same time and place. Here the Court declared that attempted criminal sexual conduct and electronic solicitation occurred at different times and places.

Impact 

The Minnesota Supreme Court took a major misstep in its reasoning in Degroot by ignoring more subtle methods of statutory interpretation in favor of a simple and narrow reading of the law. Degroot’s case deviated from the precedent, in which the court chose to ignore not only 108 years of consistent judicial application of the Dumas test to attempted criminal cases, but also the implicit codification of this test by the legislature. 

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in Degroot deviated significantly from the previous one. State v. Dumas ruled that “in order to constitute an attempt to commit a crime, there must be an intention to commit it, followed by an overt act or acts tending, but failing to accomplish that crime”. But the revised law of Minnesota’s Attempt Statute simply says that the defendant must commit an act “which is a substantial step towards, and more than the preparation for, the commission of attempt of crime” by omitting the text requirement of Dumas that there should be an over act which tends to accomplish and which is not remote from the intended crime.

However, the Minnesota Criminal Law Review Advisory Committee clarified that its intention nonetheless was to codify the law as it was then understood, including the Dumas test, as the phrase “and more than mere preparation for ”included in the statute was a term of art which encompassed the full holding of Dumas.

Dumas was cited by the Minnesota Supreme Court and was widely relied on by lower courts when considering the sufficiency of the evidence in attempted criminal convictions until Degroot’s case came. Degroot represents the dismissal of a long well-established meaning behind the phrase “more than preparation” just for the plain meaning analysis.

The ordinary meaning does not represent a method of rational interpretation in itself. The court didn’t have to look any further than the Minnesota Statutory Code itself to see the confusion that the consistent adoption of a one-sided technique would cause. Much of Minnesota’s current penal code was the product of an effort to clarify existing provisions. To this end, the proposed penal code included extremely detailed commentaries, many of which referred to past cases, such as Dumas, for shaping the intent of the vast majority of proposed laws.

Such absurd consequences could easily be avoided if the court restricted itself from using the plain reading approach it took in Degroot. It was not necessary to overturn more than a century of legal history if the purpose was simply to maintain the convictions in Degroot.


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