July 18, 2024


Food & Travel Enthusiast

Albert Lea restaurant owner found guilty of violating state COVID mandate

Albert Lea restaurant owner found guilty of violating state COVID mandate

ALBERT LEA, Minn. — The owner of a wine and beer bar who openly flouted Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders to shut down last winter during the COVID-19 pandemic was found guilty of six criminal misdemeanor counts Thursday by a Freeborn County jury.

A jury of three women and three men took only an hour of deliberation to convict Lisa Hanson, the 57-year-old bar owner, after a three-day trial punctuated by Hanson’s repeated attempts to argue that Walz’s orders were unconstitutional.

Judge Joseph Bueltel followed the reading of the verdict with a scathing denunciation of Hanson’s behavior, explaining why the governor’s orders were legal. “You wanted to make money over the interest of public safety,” he said. “You don’t recognize the law. You don’t think you’re subject to the law.”

He then sentenced her to 90 days in jail, which began immediately, and a $1,000 fine, considerably more than what Albert Lea City Attorney Kelly Dawn Martinez, who prosecuted the case, had sought.

Asked to comment on the verdict, Hanson raised her fist and shouted, “Liberty and freedom!” as she was led away by sheriff’s deputies.

It was a dramatic end to a saga that began last December when Hanson posted public announcements on her Facebook page encouraging people to visit her Interchange bar and restaurant in downtown Albert Lea, despite two executive orders by Walz prohibiting indoor dining at bars and restaurants over a four-week period.

After a warrant was issued for her arrest, Hanson went into hiding. She was arrested several weeks later in Iowa, where she was staying at a motel.

Her restaurant has been closed since February and the city of Albert Lea decided earlier this year not to renew its lease, which will expire at year’s end. In the meantime, she was fined $9,000 in a case brought by Attorney General Keith Ellison and fined another $18,000 in November in connection with the case.

The trial on the criminal charges began Tuesday. Hanson represented herself, but got into trouble with Bueltel from the outset when she attempted to question in her opening statement the legality of Walz’s orders.

Bueltel explained to her that to challenge the law’s constitutionality, she either had to sue the state of Minnesota or appeal a decision in her criminal case to a higher court. Nonetheless, Hanson continued to try to raise the issue as she cross-examined prosecution witnesses, drawing repeated objections from the prosecutor, which Bueltel sustained.

After testimony from a half-dozen law enforcement representatives and health investigators who said they witnessed customers eating and drinking at Hanson’s business during the shutdown, Hanson rested her case without presenting any defense witnesses. She also declined to testify herself.

In her closing argument, Martinez read a series of public statements that Hanson had made, including, “I am going to open despite the government shutdown.” Martinez added, “She knew about the executive order. She chose to violate the executive order. … The evidence is overwhelming.”

In her closing argument, Hanson said she had a duty to challenge “the abusive exercise of government authority” and “the overreach of an overzealous government.”

Bueltel then told the jurors they must follow the rules of law, even if they don’t agree with them. He said they were obligated to find her guilty if they concluded she operated the bar and restaurant, served food and beverages on-site during the dates cited in the charges, knew of the law’s existence and intentionally violated it.

The quick verdict caught Hanson and her supporters by surprise. They had gone over to the Interchange, a few blocks away, where her supporters were conducting a fundraiser to pay her legal bills, and had to hurry back to the courthouse.

She listened closely without expression as the guilty verdicts were read, shifting only slightly in her chair.

After the verdict, Martinez asked that Hanson be fined $500 and several days in jail, while Hanson countered she was a “a good person,” and punishment was unnecessary. “I don’t need a fine,” she said. “I don’t need to go to jail. I need to be with my family.”

Bueltel then delivered a lengthy explanation of his sentence. “I’m going to be subject to criticism, whatever I do,” he began.

He said the law gave Walz the power to issue the shutdown mandates, which stemmed from statelegislation giving the governor authority to respond to peacetime emergencies involving natural disasters. The executive orders required approval by the state’s executive council of constitutional officers and were subject to reversal if the two houses of the state Legislature disapproved, he said.

Walz’s mandates were put in place because of public safety concerns over COVID-19 when people were spreading the disease through indoor venues, hospitals were overflowing with patients and there was not a vaccine, he said.

“You don’t get to decide you’re governor,” Bueltel told Hanson. “You don’t have that role. You were a public risk. You kept your business open. … You were making money while suckers down the street closed.” He noted several prospective jurors who had opinions on the case had to be dismissed because they operated bars that closed during the same period, while she remained open making money.

Bueltel said he wanted to send a message not only to Hanson, but also to anyone else who would consider defying executive orders.

Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, called the sentence “harsh, considering that Hanson had no criminal record.” But he said both the conviction and sentence were “justified, given that she was endangering the health of so many people.”