The Blue Earth County attorney’s prosecution of the Todd Hoffner child pornography case fell far short of the professional and legal standards expected in a serious and high-profile case.
When Minnesota State University head football coach Todd Hoffner was accused and arrested for the crime of creating and owning child pornography, the community was not only shocked but needed answers. It also needed its elected county attorney to proceed with expertise, with thoroughness and with an eye toward checking and double checking its own methods and evidence.
That meticulous procedure, attention to detail and self-evaluation was largely missing in the prosecution of Hoffner. The charges were justifiably dismissed, but Hoffner, his family and the community suffered as a result. Justice also suffered.
In a short statement after Judge Krista Jass correctly threw out the charges against Hoffner, assistant county attorney Mike Hanson seemed to acknowledge the case’s weakness. He said he disagreed with the ruling but apparently not strongly enough to appeal. He cited criticism and media coverage. He concluded: “We do not go looking for cases like this, they are brought to us.”
Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson also told media in response to criticism that the county has 500-600 felony cases a year, almost suggesting that this was just one more case for the county to process expediently and efficiently as it might dispense of a routine assault case.
But the nature of the case and the nature of the charges demanded a much better effort from an office that is charged with not only enforcing the laws and bringing forth cases for a jury, but acting as a minister of justice.
We find no fault with Minnesota State University officials for turning over video of naked children to police that they found on Hoffner’s university-issued cellphone. We find very little fault with police who, upon examining the videos, decided they needed to consult the county attorney. Police and the county attorney also were justified in seeking a search warrant of Hoffner’s house to see if there was more evidence. All of these actions were the right thing to do.
But when the search warrant produced not one more shred of evidence, that should have been a signal for the county attorney to slow down and re-evaluate the entire case — not because of Hoffner’s status as a coach, but because the initial evidence raised more questions than it answered.
Blue Earth County prosecutors pursued the charges anyway, and proffered adamant arguments in a case that seemed to get flimsier with each development.
Part of what the county did gather for evidence turned out to be wrong. The county’s case included a reported statement from an investigator that Hoffner directed his children in the video, another key criteria for child pornography charges. And while that turned out to be completely untrue, the prosecution not only failed to correct its mistake, it failed to acknowledge it.
That failure erodes trust in the county attorney’s office, a critical factor in the exercise of justice. That trust as critical factor was noted by the late and longtime Anoka County Attorney Robert W. Johnson in a 2002 speech to the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, an organization whose board of directors included Arneson.
Johnson, a one-time president of the National District Attorneys Association, told the Minnesota Association of County Attorneys: “Probably the biggest trust that you have to demonstrate is whether your word is good. The trust of whether, what you present to the courts is a true and honest reflection, is a critical, critical part of the process.”
The case Blue Earth County presented to the judge fell short of that standard.
Hoffner’s defense attorneys met with prosecutors to go over these significant issues and argued sensibly for dropping the charges. A man’s reputation was at stake. His family was traumatized. The county’s case was weak and flawed. The county attorney’s office marched onward anyway.