ALBERT LEA, Minnesota – The Albert Lea city attorney prosecuting Melissa “Lisa” Hanson, owner of The Interchange Wine and Coffee Bistro for serving customers indoors, appeared to compare Hanson’s alleged violation of COVID emergency orders with Black Lives Matter Riots and January 6 during the jury selection process. Hanson is representing herself sui juris, which means to have the “full legal capacity to act on one’s own behalf.”
City Attorney Kelly Martinez asked prospective jurors if any of them had participated in Black Lives Matter or George Floyd protests or gatherings Tuesday during the jury selection process for the first of Hanson’s separate trials.
While no jurors admitted that they had, Martinez continued in that line of questioning, asking if any of them had witnessed a George Floyd protest or if a family member or friend had attended one. Again, none of the jurors answered in the affirmative.
Martinez continued, asking the jurors how they felt during the George Floyd protests and what their perception was of any of the “unlawful conduct” that she alleged may have occurred during the protests.
When none of the jurors had any reaction to that line of questioning either, Martinez called on a specific potential juror, asking her to explain how she felt about the protests and if “the underlying circumstance excused or permitted their behavior.”
The potential juror said she felt that the events Martinez was referring to were over-reported and that she did not really want to discuss the Floyd incident.
Martinez was not deterred, however, and then called upon another potential juror to explain how they felt during the George Floyd protests. When the juror did not really have an answer for her, Martinez continued and asked, “Did you watch the siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6?”
At this point, the defendant, Hanson, asked to speak to the judge presiding at the bench, objecting to that line of questioning. Following a bench meeting, the judge ruled that Martinez could not continue asking those types of questions of the jury pool.
Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg told The Minnesota Sun the controversy regarding Hanson and her actions have divided the community, and many people from outside the community have reached out to him and members of the city council.
Hanson faces nine misdemeanors, he said. “Originally there were six for violations of the executive order, then were two more, and then one for disturbing the peace.” In November 2020, Gov. Tim Walz (D) issued emergency executive orders in response to the COVID pandemic, which prohibited restaurants from serving food and beverages indoors.
Although Rigg supervises Martinez in her administrative duties, he said she told him and the city council that in criminal matters, the longstanding practice of the city would be to allow her full prosecutorial discretion.
The city manager said he went along with her explanation because he did not want her decisions subject to political pressure.
While people from both sides of the issue have contacted Rigg him and others, he said on one side there is a vocal minority that has an outsized influence. “A very small group from the outside of 20 people does not make up a majority.”
Rigg said the city attorney is prosecuting the case because Minnesota state law requires cities and towns of Albert Lea’s size to use their city attorney to prosecute misdemeanors.
Another controversial decision regarding Hanson was Rigg’s decision to let the lease on her wine bar expire at the end of December. Rigg said that the decision to end the lease on Hanson’s building, owned by the city, was to keep the building from falling into disrepair and to allow for renovations to take place.
“It would make it easier if we did not have to work around a tenant,” he said.
The case is Melissa Hanson v. the State of Minnesota, No. 24-CR-21-137 in Freeborn County District Court, Minnesota.
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Hayley Feland is a reporter with The Minnesota Sun and The Wisconsin Daily Star | Star News Network. Follow Hayley on Twitter or like her Facebook page. Send news tips to [email protected].
Photo “Kelly Martinez” by City of Albert Lea. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Karen Neoh. CC BY 2.0.