Minnesota Court of Appeals Upholds Sentencing Decision on Arson Case

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a sentencing decision by Renville County District Court in an arson case. The case is not one I typically cover here in Fire Law, but it offers an insight into the factors that courts consider when sentencing. It is a case that instructors and students in college level Fire Law classes might find useful, and anyone with an interest in the law might find worthwhile.

The case involves a fire that set by Jeffrey George Ackerson, Jr. in his own home in January 2018. The fire destroyed the structure and killed his dog. Ackerson initially denied any involvement in starting the fire. However:

  • Three weeks after the incident, Ackerson confessed that he lit a cigarette using a culinary torch, locked the torch in the “on” position, and threw the torch on the house floor.
  • At the time, Ackerson was in a room that he used for woodworking.
  • The floor was covered with a thick layer of sawdust.
  • The sawdust ignited when the torch hit the floor.
  • After starting the fire, Ackerson walked out of the house, passing his sleeping dog on his way out.
  • In October 2018, Ackerson pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree arson of a dwelling … and one count of cruelty to animals resulting in death.
  • In exchange for pleading guilty, the state dismissed one count of insurance fraud.
  • At the plea hearing, Ackerson stated that he acted impulsively when he started the fire.
  • He explained that he did so because he was struggling financially and emotionally.

The case then moved to the sentencing phase, where Ackerson sought a deviation from the normal sentencing guidelines that call for between 41 and 57 months in prison for someone in his position. A “dispositional advisor” from the public defender’s office recommended a “dispositional departure” that would place Ackerson on probation based on her view that he was “particularly amenable to probation”, or in the alternative that he be a granted “durational departure” from the guidelines to a shorter sentence than the minimum of 41-months.

Among the items she pointed out was the fact that the fire was “less serious than the typical arson offense” since it was a single-family dwelling (not a multi-unit dwelling where others could have been placed at risk); that “he took responsibility for his actions, showed remorse, and had successfully completed probation in the past”; that only his own property was damaged by the fire (no property of anyone else was harmed); and that his history of mental health issues could be better treated if he were on probation as opposed to incarcerated.

The trial court heard from the deputy fire marshal who investigated the fire and a firefighter who fought the fire. Both testified that the fire was in fact serious and difficult to fight due to the frigid temperatures at the time. Two firefighters were injured fighting the fire.

The fire marshal also testified that Ackerson denied setting the fire for nearly three weeks, and only admitted to setting it when confronted with “evidence that proved that he had been lying.”

The trial judge denied Ackerson’s request and sentenced him to 41 months in prison. Ackerson appealed the sentence asking the Court of Appeals to rule that the trial judge abused his discretion by denying his request for a dispositional departure to probation, or a durational departure to a shorter sentence. In explaining it reasoning, the Court of Appeals upheld the 41-month sentence:

  • The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines establish presumptive sentences for felony offenses.
  • A district court “may” depart from the presumptively appropriate guidelines sentence only if “identifiable, substantial, and compelling circumstances” warrant doing so.
  • However, even if mitigating factors are present, the district court is not obligated to depart from the guidelines.
  • We “afford the [district] court great discretion in the imposition of sentences and reverse sentencing decisions only for an abuse of that discretion.”
  • Here, the district court imposed a sentence within the presumptive guidelines range.
  • When the district court imposes a sentence within the presumptive guidelines range, we generally will not interfere “as long as the record shows the sentencing court carefully evaluated all the testimony and information presented before making a determination.”
  • It would be a “rare case” which would warrant reversal of the refusal to depart.
  • Based on our review of the record, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Ackerson’s request for a departure. While Ackerson made arguments in support of a departure, there were also reasons for denying a departure.
  • First, there is evidence in the record that suggests that Ackerson is not particularly amenable to probation. The supreme court … identified a number of factors that are relevant to whether an individual is particularly amenable to probation.
  • The factors include “the defendant’s age, his prior record, his remorse, his cooperation, his attitude while in court, and the support of friends and/or family.”
  • Here, the record demonstrates that Ackerson did not cooperate until nearly three weeks into the investigation when he was confronted with evidence of his involvement.
  • The record also contains evidence of a prior probation violation and evidence calling into doubt Ackerson’s claim of remorse.
  • And, while Ackerson maintains that he would benefit from mental health treatment in the community, there is nothing in the record to indicate that Ackerson has been admitted into an outpatient treatment program.
  • Accordingly, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Ackerson’s dispositional departure motion.
  • Similarly, the record demonstrates that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it denied his request for a durational departure.
  • A downward durational departure is justified when the offender’s conduct is significantly less serious than that typically involved in the commission of the offense.
  • But here, there is evidence to support that the fire was actually more serious-not less serious-than the typical arson because the fire destroyed the entire structure, the family dog died, and the weather conditions created dangerous conditions for the firefighters and first responders.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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