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State v. Conrad

Supreme Court of North Dakota

April 4, 2017

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellant
v.
Caroline Conrad, a/k/a Caroline Marie Conrad Morrell, Defendant and Appellee

         Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Steven E. McCullough, Judge.

         REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          Tristan J. Van de Streek (argued), Cherie L. Clark (on brief) and Reid A. Brady (on brief), for plaintiff and appellant.

          Ariana D. Meyers, for defendant and appellee.

          OPINION

          Crothers, Justice.

         [¶ 1] The State appeals from a pretrial order dismissing criminal charges of theft of property and exploitation of a vulnerable adult against Caroline Conrad based on the civil dispute doctrine. We reverse and remand for further proceedings because the civil dispute doctrine does not apply in this case.

         I

         [¶ 2] In December 2015 the State charged Conrad with theft of property under N.D.C.C. § 12.1-23-02(1) and exploitation of a vulnerable adult under N.D.C.C. § 12.1-32-07.1(1)(b), alleging Conrad used for herself more than $50, 000 in funds her elderly mother deposited in a joint bank account which listed the mother as the "member" and Conrad as a "joint owner." After the district court found probable cause at the preliminary hearing, Conrad, at the court's suggestion, brought a motion to dismiss the charges based on the civil dispute doctrine.

         [¶ 3] In its 19-page decision on the motion the district court detailed our case law on the civil dispute doctrine. See State v. Herzig, 2012 ND 247, 825 N.W.2d 235; State v. Curtis, 2008 ND 108, 750 N.W.2d 438; State v. Perreault, 2002 ND 14, 638 N.W.2d 541; State v. Trosen, 547 N.W.2d 735 (N.D. 1996); State v. Brakke, 474 N.W.2d 878 (N.D. 1991); and State v. Meyer, 361 N.W.2d 221 (N.D. 1985). The district court correctly concluded the doctrine has two prongs: (1) "there is a legitimate dispute about a unique issue of property, contract, or civil law upon which an element of the charged offense turns;" or (2) "there is a legitimate dispute about an issue traditionally and more appropriately settled in a civil forum." The court found the second prong did not apply because "issues involving ownership interests in joint accounts are not so traditionally and appropriately resolved in a civil forum." However, the court found the first prong applied because there was "a legitimate dispute over a unique issue of contract, property [or] civil law which involves an element of the criminal offense."

         [¶ 4] The district court began its analysis by noting under both charges the property stolen must belong to another, and it is long-settled law that "placement of money by one person into a joint account with another creates a joint tenancy interest in the money of both the co-owners of the account. First Nat. Bank & Trust Co. v. Green, [66 N.D. 160, 165, ] 262 N.W. 596[, 597] ([] 193[5]) (stating that after money was placed into a joint account by one party, that either party on the account 'might have withdrawn any part of the whole of the deposit during the lifetime of both')." Relying on In re Paulson's Estate, 219 N.W.2d 132, 134 (N.D. 1974), the court noted the three elements for a valid inter vivos gift "are: (1) intent to give; (2) delivery of the gift[;] and (3) acceptance by the donee." Based on the mother's joint account application and her account contract with the bank, the court found "a legitimate dispute exists" regarding the mother's donative intent in determining whether an inter vivos gift had been given by the mother to Conrad. The court found delivery occurred because the mother changed her sole ownership of the funds to joint ownership with Conrad and Conrad accepted the gift because she "used these funds herself." The court concluded Conrad met her burden of showing "a legitimate dispute on a fairly unique underlying issue of property or civil law, " referring to donative intent for an inter vivos gift. The court therefore dismissed the charges based on the civil dispute doctrine.

         II

         [¶ 5] The State argues the district court erred in dismissing the criminal charges under the civil dispute doctrine.

         [¶ 6] Under N.D.R.Crim.P. 12(b)(1), "[a] party may raise by pretrial motion any defense, objection, or request that the court can determine without a trial on the merits." In Perreault, 2002 ND 14, ¶ 7, 638 N.W.2d 541, we explained:

"[T]he purpose of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the information or indictment. It is not a device for summary trial of the evidence, and facts not appearing on the face of the information cannot be considered. The court is obliged to confine itself to the face of the information. Further, for ...

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