Minnesota Court Strikes Down Coercion Law on Free Speech Grounds

(CN) – Minnesota prosecutors charged a man under an unconstitutional statute after he threatened to send video of his ex-girlfriend talking about marijuana to her employer, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

The Minnesota State Capitol.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of a trial court judge who found that the criminal law restricted free speech under the First Amendment.

The state had appealed the dismissal of its complaint against John Jorgenson. Prosecutors said he threatened to release a video of his ex-girlfriend to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. He made the alleged threat after the couple broke up in the fall of 2016, and she told him to leave her house.

Amid the dispute, Jorgenson called the woman’s father and told him that he wanted $25,000, according to court records,. In return, he said he would not send the video of her “talking about smoking marijuana” to the department where she worked.

Prosecutors later charged Jorgenson with attempted coercion. Earlier this year, Olmsted County District Court Judge Joseph Chase denied Jorgenson’s motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause but found the statute was too broad and violated the First Amendment.

The appeals court agreed Monday that the state had criminalized constitutionally protected speech.

“The breadth of the threats proscribed by [the statute] is troubling because, for example, it would prohibit a former classmate or coworker from privately threatening to disclose to the media an elected official’s embarrassing past if the official does not resign from public office,” Judge Diane Bratvold wrote in the 20-page ruling.

The law criminalized threats that did not involve extortion of money and threats that were not defamatory, the ruling states. That meant it could prevent a prosecutor from pressuring “a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for not filing charges on an unrelated incident,” for example, Bratvold noted.

Because the language in the section of the law cannot be separated from the rest of the statute, the court ruled that the entire section is invalid.

Judges Lucinda Jesson and Renee Worke joined Bratvold’s opinion.

Jorgenson’s attorney David Liebow said the case has now been dismissed three times. Prosecutors had charged Jorgeson in Dodge County but the case was removed to Olmsted after a judge ruled that the case was filed in the wrong jurisdiction.

“The Minnesota courts have been increasingly protective of free speech,” Liebow said in a phone interview. “This is a statute that can be fixed, should be fixed, but in its current form did not comply with the Constitution.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

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