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State v. Wangstad

Supreme Court of North Dakota

August 25, 2018

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
JanMichel Wangstad a/k/a Jan-Michel Wangstad, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Douglas R. Herman, Judge. AFFIRMED.

          Renata J. Olafson Selzer, Assistant State's Attorney, Fargo, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Chad R. McCabe, Bismarck, ND, for defendant and appellant.

          JENSEN, JUSTICE.

         [¶ 1] JanMichel Wangstad ("Wangstad") appeals a criminal judgment entered after a jury verdict finding him guilty of attempted murder. Wangstad argues the district court erred in the admission of social media posts he made prior to the alleged crime, the jury was given erroneous instructions, and the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction. We affirm the judgment of conviction.

         I

         [¶ 2] On March 18, 2016, West Fargo police were dispatched to the Rodeway Inn in response to a report of a man with a gun. Responding officers located the source of the disturbance in one of the rooms. One of the officers knocked on the door of the room and announced, "police." A female acquaintance of Wangstad opened the door and began to step back into the room. The officers told the female to get down on the ground. Two officers then entered a few steps into the room and noticed Wangstad standing by a desk. Wangstad made a fast-paced movement from the desk to the corner of the room where he fired a gun in the direction of one of the officers. The bullet traveled through the wall above the entry door to the room and lodged into the wall of another room. The officers then backed out of the room.

         [¶ 3] Wangstad admitted at trial that he moved toward the corner of the room, pulled the gun from his waistband, fired the gun, and the bullet hit above the door where one of the officers was standing. Wangstad stated he did not intend to shoot the officer; he just wanted to "get him out of the room as quickly as possible." Wangstad was convicted by a jury on the charge of attempted murder.

         [¶ 4] On appeal, Wangstad argues the statements he made via social media posts prior to the alleged crime should not have been admitted into evidence. Wangstad also argues the jury was not properly instructed regarding the essential elements of attempted murder under N.D.C.C. §§ 12.1-06-01, 12.1-16-01(1)(a). Lastly, Wangstad argues the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to warrant a finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

         II

         [¶ 5] The State offered as evidence portions of two social media posts that had been authored by Wangstad. The State offered the posts as evidence of Wangstad's state of mind arguing the posts demonstrated that Wangstad had an anti-law enforcement disposition and violent intentions. Wangstad objected to the relevancy of the posts, arguing that N.D.R.Ev. 403 precluded the posts from being admitted as evidence because they were not probative to the issues being tried and, if probative, were unduly prejudicial. The district court overruled the objection, admitted the evidence, and inquired whether Wangstad wanted the entirety of both posts read to the jury. Wangstad requested a complete version of both posts be read to the jury.

         [¶ 6] "In ruling on the relevancy of evidence, a trial court has broad discretion to balance the probative value of the evidence against the risk of unfair prejudice, and its decision will not be overturned on appeal absent an abuse of discretion." State v. Valgren, 411 N.W.2d 390, 394 (N.D. 1987) (citing State v. Newnam, 409 N.W.2d 79, 87 (N.D. 1987)). A trial court has "broad discretion in determining whether to admit or exclude evidence, and its determination will be reversed on appeal only for an abuse of discretion." State v. Chisholm, 2012 ND 147, ¶ 10, 818 N.W.2d 707. "[T]his Court does not reverse a district court's decision to admit or exclude evidence on the basis of relevance unless the district court abused its discretion by acting in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or unconscionable manner." State v. Bjerklie, 2006 ND 173, ¶ 4, 719 N.W.2d 359 (citing Rittenour v. Gibson, 2003 ND 14, ¶ 35, 656 N.W.2d 691).

         [¶ 7] Here, the district court noted the social media posts were prejudicial. The court then extensively balanced the probative value of the posts and the possible prejudice created by the posts to determine if they were unduly prejudicial and required to be excluded from evidence. The court noted that social media related evidence was becoming increasingly common in many different types of cases. The court considered the proximity in time the posts were made to the incident being tried and provided, in part, the following summary:

And all of a sudden we have, in the 21st Century, temporary expressions of state of mind that never existed before. It's compelling evidence. It is the best evidence. How could we not consider it? What fact finder would not want to know this? What fair fact finder would not want to know this, that within ten days prior to this event, ...

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