MANKATO — Timothy Hansen Jr. has been collecting traffic citations for as long as he’s been able to drive.
He’s been ticketed dozens of times since 2003, often receiving multiple citations during a single stop.
A judge went too far, however, when he allowed a jury to convict Hansen for a traffic offense even though the incident had nothing to do with driving, according to a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling released this week.
Hansen, 27, lived below a second-floor apartment that caught fire September 2009 and knew one of its occupants, Steve Ramirez, was blind. So he climbed up to the balcony of Ramirez’s apartment and used a fire extinguisher to smash through the sliding glass door.
Several other residents in the apartment complex ran around and collected about a half dozen fire extinguishers. Two other men, one on the balcony and one on the ground, got the extinguishers up as quickly as they could while Hansen went inside with his brother, Mitch, to fight the fire.
Fortunately, Ramirez wasn’t home at. Unfortunately, the Hansens weren’t able to put the fire out before it quickly spread through the apartment.
Timothy Hansen’s legal problems in this case started after firefighters and police officers arrived just before 3 a.m. He’s admitted in the past that he’s not a popular person with Mankato police officers and Blue Earth County sheriff’s deputies. So he didn’t expect to be treated like a good Samaritan while firefighters finished the job he started.
Still shirtless after leaving his apartment to help his neighbor, Hansen attempted to go inside for some clothes while firefighters were still working above. Police officers told him to stay outside and he initially stopped after hearing the warning. He was arrested after he changed his mind and headed back to his apartment.
Hansen said the officers pushed him against a vehicle, handcuffed him and put him inside a squad car. He was taken to jail, strip searched and told to put on an orange jump suit, but was released a few hours later.
“They arrested me for obstruction of justice after we were the only two people trying to put out the fire,” Hansen said that morning. “I said, ‘This is completely unnecessary, I’ve done nothing wrong.’”
He was cited for obstructing the legal process and brought his case to a trial jury. Before the trial started in August 2010, District Court Judge Bradley Walker told the prosecutor and Hansen’s defense attorney that he was considering using a second charge of failure to comply with a lawful order as a lesser included offense for the jury to consider.
Even though the prosecutor pointed out during that hearing that the statute Walker was using pertained directly to traffic offenses, Walker added the charge during the trial several days later. An objection by Hansen’s attorney at that point was overruled.
The jury acquitted Hansen for the obstruction of the legal process charge and found him guilty of failure to comply with a lawful order. Hansen appealed the conviction, saying he couldn’t be convicted for not complying with a lawful order because it’s a traffic offense.
The Court of Appeals agreed after reviewing the case, noting the law Walker used is in a chapter of statutes titled “Traffic Regulations.”
“Hansen had not been in a vehicle or on a roadway, and the police officers who engaged him were not at the scene to regulate traffic,” the ruling said. “The district court erred by concluding that this traffic regulation is a lesser-included offense in the offense of obstructing the legal process.”
The ruling said Walker abused his discretion by adding the charge, so Hansen’s conviction had to be reversed.
Hansen couldn’t immediately be reached for comment for this story.
One of his attorney’s during the case, Chief Public Defender Scott Cutcher, said Hansen shouldn’t have been required to serve his 10-day jail sentence until after the case was appealed. That’s time he won’t get back, Cutcher said. Hansen wasn’t fined and Cutcher didn’t know if he will be required to pay the $152 in court charges.
“What was the most troubling about this is the court chose to use this lesser and included offense — the state didn’t even ask for it,” Cutcher said. “Had Mr. Hansen driven his car into the building, then maybe. It’s pretty cut and dry stuff and it’s too bad he had to go through all this.
“Hopefully we all learn from this.”