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Denault v. State

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 12, 2017

Timothy Ray Denault, Petitioner
v.
State of North Dakota, Respondent and Appellant

         Appeal from the District Court of Stutsman County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Thomas E. Merrick, Judge. REVERSED.

          Britta K. Demello Rice, Assistant Attorney General, Attorney General Office, Bismarck, ND, for respondent and appellant.

          Timothy Ray Denault, petitioner; no appearance.

          OPINION

          Kapsner, Justice.

         [¶ 1] The State appeals from a district court order granting Timothy Denault's petition for declaratory relief and vacating his duty to register as a sexual offender in North Dakota. We conclude that the court abused its discretion in granting declaratory relief and that the Minnesota criminal offense to which Denault pled guilty is equivalent to a North Dakota offense for purposes of sexual offender registration under N.D.C.C. § 12.1-32-15(3)(b). We reverse.

         I

         [¶ 2] In 2000, Denault pled guilty in Clay County, Minnesota, to violating Minn. Stat. § 609.3451, for lewd exhibition, gross misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct in the fifth degree. Denault subsequently moved to North Dakota. In December 2014, Denault filed a petition and affidavit in the district court, seeking declaratory relief from being required to register as a sexual offender in North Dakota. Denault alleged he had been informed that the North Dakota attorney general's office determined he was required to register based on his conviction in Minnesota, despite not having had to register in Minnesota. He requested the court to declare the requirement to register as a sexual offender unlawful, to terminate his registration requirement, and to remove him from the attorney general's list of sexual offenders.

         [¶ 3] In January 2015, Denault filed additional exhibits, including copies of the complaint and final order from his criminal case in Minnesota. In June 2016, the district court issued a notice of default hearing because the State had not responded to the petition. The State opposed entry of a default judgment, and the court allowed the State to respond to Denault's petition. In August 2016, the State filed a brief opposing Denault's petition for declaratory relief, arguing N.D.C.C. § 12.1-32-15 treats offenders moving here from out-of-state the same as if convicted in North Dakota and Denault does not qualify to be exempted from registration.

         [¶ 4] The district court granted Denault's petition, vacated his sexual offender registration requirement, and ordered him to be removed from the attorney general's list of sexual offenders. The court concluded the executive branch had imposed the registration requirement on Denault, rather than the judicial branch of government. The court further held the attorney general's office acted in excess of its statutory authority and in violation of the North Dakota Constitution's separation of powers in deciding there was an equivalent North Dakota offense and by imposing a duty to register as a sexual offender.

         II

         [¶ 5] The State argues the district court erred in granting Denault's petition for declaratory relief.

         [¶ 6] We review declaratory judgment actions under the same standards as other cases. N.D.C.C. § 32-23-07; see also Nationwide Mut. Ins. Cos. v. Lagodinski, 2004 ND 147, ¶ 7, 683 N.W.2d 903; Hanneman v. Cont'l W. Ins. Co., 1998 ND 46, ¶ 19, 575 N.W.2d 445. The Declaratory Judgment Act's purpose is "to settle and to afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status, and other legal relations, and it is to be construed and administered liberally." N.D.C.C. § 32-23-12. "The court may refuse to render or enter a declaratory judgment or decree if such judgment or decree, if rendered or entered, would not terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the proceeding." N.D.C.C. § 32-23-06.

         [¶ 7] We have said a justiciable controversy must exist, ripe for a judicial determination. Ramsey Cty. Farm Bureau v. Ramsey Cty., 2008 ND 175, ¶ 22, 755 N.W.2d 920; Saefke v. Stenehjem, 2003 ND 202, ¶ 12, 673 N.W.2d 41. "The Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act does not give a court the power to render advisory opinions or determine questions not essential to the decision of an actual controversy." Richland Cty. Water Res. Bd. v. Pribbernow, 442 N.W.2d 916, 918 (N.D.1989) (quoting Davis v. Dairyland Cty. Mut. Ins. Co. of Texas, 582 S.W.2d 591, 593 (Tex. Civ. App. 1979)). Under N.D.C.C. §32-23-06, "the [district] court's decision to grant or deny a request for a declaratory judgment is discretionary." Nodak Mutual Ins. Co. v. Wamsley, 2004 ND 174, ¶ 7, 687 N.W.2d 226. The court's decision will not be set aside on appeal absent an abuse of its discretion. Id.

         [¶ 8] In granting Denault's petition for declaratory relief, the district court granted relief as a matter of law on legal grounds based on undisputed facts, akin to a summary judgment. Our standard for reviewing summary judgment is also well established:

Summary judgment is a procedural device for promptly disposing of a lawsuit without a trial if there are no genuine issues of material fact or inferences which can reasonably be drawn from undisputed facts, or if the only issues to be resolved are questions of law. Whether summary judgment was properly granted is a question of law which we review de novo on the entire record. On appeal, this Court decides if the information available to the trial court precluded the existence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitled the moving party to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Ramsey Cty., 2008 ND 175, ¶ 6, 755 N.W.2d 920 (quotation marks ...


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