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United States v. Helmerick

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division

August 15, 2016





         Defendant Roberta Helmerick timely filed an appeal from a decision of United States Magistrate Judge Daneta Wollmann. (Docket 1). See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3402 & 3742(e) & (h). Ms. Helmerick appeals from the judgment in her criminal case for a petty offense entered by Magistrate Judge Daneta Wollmann in which the magistrate judge found Ms. Helmerick guilty of collecting signatures in violation of 39 CFR § 232.1(h)(1). (Docket 1-1). The magistrate judge imposed a fine of $200 and processing fees of $25 for a total of $225. Id. at p. 1. 'Upon review of the record, the [district court] shall determine whether the sentence . . . was imposed in violation of law . . . .” 18 U.S.C. § 3742(e).

         The sole ground for Ms. Helmerick’s appeal pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 58(g)(2)(B) is that the magistrate judge erred in denying her Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 motion for judgment of acquittal. (Docket 1). Within the Rule 29 motion, Ms. Helmerick’s only claim is “[t]he Government did not meet its burden because it was unable to prove an essential element of the case, that 39 CFR § 232.1 was posted in a conspicuous place.” Id.

         For the reasons stated below, defendant’s appeal is denied and the judgment of the magistrate judge is affirmed.


         In considering a defendant’s motion for judgment of acquittal, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government’s evidence, draw all reasonable inferences in the government’s favor, and determine if the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). Questions of the weight of the evidence and credibility of witnesses are the province of the trier of fact, in this case, the magistrate judge. United States v. Nolen, 536 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 2008); United States v. Jones, 600 F.3d 985 (8th Cir. 2010).

         “The defendant is not entitled to a trial de novo by a district judge. The scope of the appeal is the same as in an appeal to the court of appeals from a judgment entered by a district judge.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 58(2)(D). The court must “view the evidence in the light most favorable to the guilty verdict and accept all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence.” United States v. Rojas, 356 F.3d 876, 878 (8th Cir. 2004). The court is limited to asking whether “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (emphasis in original). With this standard in mind, the court finds the following evidence determinative of Ms. Helmerick’s Rule 29 motion and this appeal.

         The Code of Federal Regulations prohibits the “collecting [of] signatures on petitions” on property of the United States Postal Service. 39 CFR § 232.1(a) & (h)(1). The regulation requires that this rule governing conduct on postal property “shall be posted and kept posted at a conspicuous place on all such property.” Id. at 232.1(a). The exception to the “collecting of signatures” prohibition is that the restriction does not apply to “sidewalks along the street frontage of postal property falling within the property lines of the Postal Service that are not physically distinguishable from adjacent municipal or other public sidewalks, and any paved areas adjacent to such sidewalks that are not physically distinguishable from such sidewalks.” Id. at § 232.1(a)(ii). This exception is commonly referred to as the Grace exception.[1]

         On April 14, 2015, Ms. Helmerick and others were at the Main Branch of the United States Post Office in Rapid City, South Dakota, circulating petitions for a ballot issue. During the course of the day Postmaster Lorrie Papka became concerned these individuals were violating § 232.1(h)(1) because they were stopping postal patrons at the front doors of the post office and having patrons sign the petitions directly outside the front doors. (Docket 5 at p. 127:15-18).

         After consulting with the legal department, Postmaster Papka told the group “they could not have people signing petitions in front of the . . . post office . . . I told them if you want people to sign your petition, you can tell them in front of the post office that there’s someone over on the public sidewalk . . . that’s over there and you can go over there and sign it.” Id. at p. 130:2-10. See also id. at p. 141:15-17 (“they could ask customers if they wanted to go over to the sidewalk and sign a petition, the public sidewalk.”).

         Sometime on April 14 another postal employee, Sonny Magnuson, gave the group a packet of information which included a sheet received from the postal legal department “outlining that they couldn’t be collecting signatures on postal property.”[2] Id. at p. 143:13-15. Exhibit 5 is a short explanation of the postal regulations applicable to the situation.

The activities of the petitioners on postal property are prohibited by two postal regulations, which prohibit: (1) conduct that “impedes ingress to or egress from a post office, ” and (2) “collecting signatures on petitions, polls, or surveys.” (39 C.F.R. Part 231).
The petitioners are welcome to use the public spaces surrounding the post office so long as they do not impede access to, nor interfere with egress from, the post office. They ...

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