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It's Your Court: Feb 27, Change of venue

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You report for jury duty and are brought into the courtroom. The case being called for trial is a criminal case. The judge introduces the attorneys, reviews the charges against the defendant and reads the names of possible witnesses.

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You do not recognize anyone involved but are soon given an explanation — the alleged offense occurred in another county. Why is this case being tried in your county?

When we refer to the location where a case is processed, we use the term “venue.” The general rule is that every criminal case is to be venued in the “county in which the offense was committed.”

There are some exceptions to this rule. For example, if an offender kidnaps a victim in county A and then takes the victim to county B, the case can be prosecuted in either county.

A criminal case is initially venued when a complaint is filed at the courthouse. Almost all criminal cases stay in the county in which the complaint was originally filed.

Our rules provide, however, that a trial may be moved if (a) the court is satisfied that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in the county in which the case is pending; (b) for the convenience of parties and witnesses; (c) in the interests of justice; or (d) for reasons of prejudicial publicity.

Criminal cases that have a venue change usually involve serious charges and receive extensive media coverage. An example of such a case occurred in Lyon County in 2008 where a woman was accused of driving a motor vehicle that crashed into a school bus. Four children were killed and 16 other children were injured.

The trial was moved to nearby Kandiyohi County. The judge determined that it would be difficult to find an impartial jury given the magnitude of the event, the number of people involved, and the fact that the community was geographically compact and close knit.

In a case from Ramsey County several years ago, the defendant, a prominent citizen of St. Paul, was accused of hiring another to murder his wife. The case received extensive publicity that included comments from law enforcement officers about the strength of the state’s case. The case went up to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ordered that venue be moved to a different county.

In that case the Supreme Court said: “Where there is reason to believe that it will be impossible to obtain a fair and impartial jury in the county selected because of local prejudices, feelings, and opinions, the ends of justice require that a change of venue be granted.”

Here in the Ninth Judicial District, in recent years murder trials have been moved from Koochiching County to Red Lake County, from Mahnomen County to Polk County and from Clearwater County to Beltrami County. Each of these cases received substantial publicity.

The right to a fair trial is guaranteed by Article 1, Section 6 of our state constitution. While it is normally the case that a fair trial can be had in the originating county, every once in a while we need to move a trial to ensure fairness.

Because the right to a fair and impartial jury trumps any interest anyone might have in having a trial close to home.

As always, remember it is your court.

Paul Rasmussen is a district court judge in the Ninth Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard countie. His email address is: paul.rasmussen@courts.state.mn.us.

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