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Legal Learning: High profile case’s legacy

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Legal Learning: High profile case’s legacy
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

From James H. Manahan, J.D. 

If you go to the webpage for the Lake County District Court, you will find a link for “High Profile Cases” (http://www.mncourts.gov/district/6/?page=210). One of those cases is actually a Cook County case, State of Minnesota v. Maranda Weber. What made that case so famous?

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It happened Halloween night in 2007. Dr. Kenneth Petersen, age 67, was on his way home on the Gunflint Trail from a church choir rehearsal. A tree had fallen across the road, so he stopped to cut it up with his chain saw. The high beam lights of his car were aimed at the tree and the hazard lights were on. Another choir member’s car was parked behind him as they worked to clear the tree. A border patrol agent named Maranda Weber, age 27, was traveling south and didn’t see the tree or the people. Her car struck Peterson at about 50 miles per hour, knocked him into his own vehicle, and he died as a result of his injuries.

Tim Scannell, the County Attorney, considered charging Maranda Weber with felony criminal vehicular homicide, careless driving, and failure to drive with due care. However, the Grand Jury decided to charge only the latter two crimes, both misdemeanors. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, many local residents were outraged over the accident. The Border Patrol office in Grand Marais had grown from two agents to about 15 since 2001, and some locals thought they drove carelessly and were unfriendly – “X-File” stuff, as they put it. Scannell said the Border Patrol refused to provide information he requested. Sheriff Mark Falk said they seem to have “all these big secrets. There seems to be a lack of public accountability.”

However, the car Weber was driving had a “black box” installed, which recorded key readings in the seconds before impact. Scannell said it showed that the car did not swerve, brake, or slow before hitting the tree and Dr. Petersen.

Maranda Weber’s attorney then went to Federal Court and tried to stop the Cook County proceedings, arguing that she was immune from prosecution in state court because she was on duty at the time, and could not get fair treatment in Cook County. Judge John Tunheim rejected that claim in late December, 2008. In June, 2009, Judge Kenneth Sandvik rejected Weber’s motion to dismiss the Cook County charges. The case was finally resolved in November, 2009, when Weber pled guilty to failure to drive with due care. She was sentenced to pay a fine of $200 plus costs of $90, turning the crime into a petty misdemeanor.

According to Dr. Petersen’s obituary in the Duluth News Tribune, he had worked with Native American children in Alaska for 34 years, serving as chief of pediatrics and chief of epidemiology in Anchorage. He worked with another physician, Dr. Rob Burgess, who became his life partner for 31 years (they could not marry at that time, of course). He was a dedicated Lutheran. At Weber’s sentencing, Dr. Burgess had this to say: “We have to look at finding out what happened and work to prevent it from happening again. . . . Border Patrol agents have been acting like adversaries, when we should be working together.” To Maranda Weber he said, “I knew Ken, and I know that he would forgive you.”

Judge Sandvik also expressed his opinion about the Border Patrol at the sentencing, saying that concerns regarding their handling of the matter were justified. Relations between the agency and the community have been too adversarial, he said. “The Border Patrol can learn to treat their community . . . as though they are part of that community.”

What has happened since these events occurred? According to Cook County Sheriff Falk, attitudes have greatly improved since then, and local law enforcement now has “excellent relations” with the Border Patrol. He believes that the Border Patrol now has a “positive image in the community.” Molly Hicken, the acting Cook County attorney, told me that she agrees with this assessment, and says that Border Patrol agents have become more involved with the community of Grand Marais. Michael Pauley, the Supervisory Agent at the Border Patrol, told me that he also agrees that relations have improved since the Weber case. However, he would not speculate as to the cause of the improvement in relations. His boss, Richard Fortunato, would not comment and referred me to the Border Patrol’s Office of Public Affairs in Detroit. That office did not return my phone call.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.

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