Thursday, October 24, 2013


When a defendant appears for sentencing, one of the factors that a judge must consider is whether a victim has suffered financial damage as the result of the crime, and order the defendant to pay that amount back as restitution.

Some cases are easy:  The defendant shoplifts from a retailer and the property is not recovered.  The restitution is price tag for the item stolen.

Other times, it’s not so easy.  A drunk driver totals a victim’s older car and only means of transportation.  One might think that the cost of a replacement vehicle would be the proper measure of restitution.  However, the law in Minnesota provides that it is the fair market value of the property that is the proper figure for restitution.  So a replacement vehicle may run $2000, but the fair value of the wrecked car, before the accident, was only $1000.  I am required to award only the $1000.

In some cases, the cost of repair is the measure of damages.  A burglar breaks into a house and damages the door.  The cost to repair the door (and other damages caused by the break-in) is the proper measure of damages.

Sometimes, the damages are so high that there is no way the defendant could ever repay them.  One case in particular comes to mind:  after a night of partying, three young men thought it would be great fun to turn the valves at the natural gas pipeline supplying the city.  The gas was turned off, and so were the furnaces, dryers and stoves throughout the city.  Homes and businesses were pretty much shut down until the gas company first turned off all appliances in the homes and businesses, then turned on the gas to the city and finally went to each home and business in the city to relight pilot lights and be sure that the appliances were working properly and safely.

The gas company alone had damages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Plus, there were claims from manufacturing companies in the city who could not open that day because there was no heat to their facilities.

The defendants were ultimately found, charged and pled guilty to the charge of Criminal Damage to Property.  They were placed on probation for five years each and each was required to pay $100 per month for each month they were on probation to be applied to the restitution claim.  Quite a cost for a night of partying.

Restitution is only an amount required to be paid as a part of the criminal probation terms.  This does not preclude any victim from suing the defendant in civil court for any and all damages that they can prove were caused by the defendant.  Of course, the defendant cannot be required to pay twice for the same damage. 

*  *  *  *  *

Next week:  How Did You KNOW That?