By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — A felony voter fraud charge filed against an 86-year-old St. Peter woman will be wiped from her record under an agreement brought to a judge Tuesday.
Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer and the woman’s attorney, Bill Sherry of Apple Valley, both said the deal was the best resolution for the situation.
It meant Margaret Ann Schneider didn’t have to go to the courthouse Tuesday because both sides agreed she didn’t have to appear before District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel.
The diversion agreement also means the charge will be dismissed if Schneider meets one requirement between now and Nov. 30, 2014.
“The case is basically suspended for 20 months,” Sherry said. “She simply has to comply with all local laws regarding voting. No money has to be paid, she doesn’t have to report to probation, there’s no community service. Everything will be off her record.”
Sherry called Schneider’s family and volunteered to take the case without pay after learning about the charge through the media.
Earlier this month Schneider said she realized she voted twice in the 2012 primary election after she was questioned by Travis Sandland, a St. Peter police detective. She voted once with an absentee ballot July 13 and again at her polling place Aug. 14.
Schneider said she had forgotten she had voted in July and didn’t realize both ballots were for the same election. She also pointed out that Sandland’s investigation found that the letter’s A.B., which showed an absentee ballot had already been cast, were next to Schneider’s name in the voter roster book. Schneider had to sign her name over the top of the letters.
During an interview after the charge was filed, Eva Moore, Schneider’s daughter, said she didn’t understand why voting judges allowed her mother to vote instead of pointing out her mistake.
“That’s what I told Travis when he told us about this,” Moore said then. “Who is in the wrong? The election judges for not checking or my mom?”
Voter laws also require election judges to challenge voters in Schneider’s situation. The same laws require judges to be properly trained.
There are no plans to pursue criminal charges against any of the election judges involved, Fischer said Tuesday.
Sherry said he was confident Schneider would have been found innocent if the case would have gone to trial. But that could have required several court appearances, which is something his client didn’t want.
Schneider has Parkinson’s disease, suffers from dementia and uses a walker. Just getting to the courthouse and to its third-floor courtrooms would have been stressful, she said in March after the charge was filed.
“Instead of going that direction, it’s better to put the case behind her,” Sherry said. “She’s glad that it has been worked out and that she didn’t have to come here.”
Assistant Nicollet County Attorney James Dunn, the prosecutor who filed the charge, appeared in court Tuesday. He told the judge he agreed with the diversion plan, which takes the case out of the court system. Dunn declined to comment after the hearing and referred all questions about the case to Fischer.
Fischer said in March that there is a state statute that required her to have the case investigated, then file a charge against Schneider if there was probable cause.
Beth Fraser, director of government affairs for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, said Fischer’s description of statute 201.275 was accurate. That statute says any county attorney that has been “notified by affidavit” of a voter fraud violation is required to prosecute if any evidence of the violation is found.
Fischer said Tuesday she was made aware of Schneider’s situation by election auditors. It was her intention from the beginning to offer Schneider a way to keep the charge from being on her criminal record.
The law, the way Fischer interprets it, doesn’t give prosecutors any discretion for filing charges, she said. But it doesn’t place any restriction on how she decides to resolve a case, either.
“That’s what we used here was prosecutorial discretion in resolving cases,” Fischer said. “It’s the resolution we intended.”
Fischer also pointed out as the county attorney she could have been charged with a misdemeanor and forced out of office if she didn’t file charges, according to 201.275.
Questions of intent
The statute that was cited for Schneider’s case was 204C.14(b). That statute says “No individual shall intentionally vote more than once at the same election.”
Schneider’s case drew statewide attention, which prompted some attorneys to question whether she should have been charged when her actions weren’t intentional. Sandland’s report said he told her he didn’t believe her actions were intentional, according to the criminal complaint.
The word “intentional” has two interpretations when it is applied to criminal law, Fischer said. She said the statute used to charge Schneider could be interpreted as a “general intent” crime.
Using an assault as an example, Fischer said someone can show “general intent” to assault someone simply by taking a swing. That person doesn’t have to have any intention of causing harm to be charged with a crime. Sandland’s investigation showed Schneider intended to vote even though she didn’t intend to cast an illegal vote, Fischer said.
Specific intent is more restrictive. Crimes that require specific intent require prosecutors to show that someone did something with the intention of committing a crime. Either way, there was enough probable cause to meet the requirements for charging someone, Fischer said.
“We just had to determine probable cause for charging,” she said. “Intent not to violate the law is for the court process, not the charging process.”
Around the same time as the charge against Schneider was reported, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association was asking legislatures to change 201.275 to give prosecutors the same discretion they have in criminal cases.
The Minnesota Majority put out a news release where its president, Dan McGrath, suggested Fischer was using Schneider as a “pawn.” McGrath said Fischer wasn’t forced to charge Schneider because there was no intent.
“It may be that the county attorney is prosecuting Margaret Schneider in order to garner sympathy for her while inaccurately claiming the law that the County Attorneys Association happens to be lobbying to change compels her,” McGrath said in the release. “It smacks of cold political calculation.”
The process of charging Schneider started long before the charge was initially reported by The Free Press, Fischer said.
There have been other attempts to change the law, but Fischer said she wasn’t aware of the latest lobbying effort when Schneider’s situation came to her attention.
Fischer also said she was surprised by the amount of state and national media attention the case received.