Minnesota trooper declared unreliable court witness
***Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 22, 2017***
ROSEAU, Minn.—Trooper Sylvia Maurstad is well known in northwestern Minnesota.
A sergeant in the Minnesota State Patrol, Maurstad has built a reputation in Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties for aggressiveness and having court cases dismissed. This year a northern Minnesota prosecutor labeled her as an unreliable witness.
In February, Roseau County Attorney Karen Foss classified Maurstad as "Giglio impaired," meaning any testimony she gives in Roseau County can be taken into question.
"The Giglio impaired distinction does not prevent my office from using Sergeant Maurstad as a witness in criminal proceedings but brings her testimony into question at any stage in the process," Foss told the Herald in an email. "If she is providing testimony, the validity of the testimony is decided by the judge or the jury."
The term refers to a 1972 Supreme Court Case, Giglio v. United States, in which the court determined the prosecution must inform the jury about any deals made between a witness and the prosecution. Typically, it is meant to show that someone's testimony may be unreliable.
In making her distinction, Foss cited a 2015 decision by Minnesota Ninth Judicial District Judge Paul T. Benshoof to throw out an impaired driving arrest made by Maurstad after ruling she lacked proper probable cause to pull the vehicle over.
"We have never had the experience where a prosecutor has focused on one specific trial court order like the one in question and decided it would impair all future criminal prosecutions," Col. Matthew Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol wrote in a letter to Foss obtained by the Herald.
Foss has inquired twice whether Maurstad could be transferred to another district, according to Langer's letter. Langer asked for a written explanation of her decision in the letter, which was dated April 20.
"Sgt. Maurstad is a valued and dedicated member of our agency who, as far as I am aware, works hard on a daily basis to keep our roads safe," he wrote. "Your decision has a great impact on not only Sgt. Maurstad's ability to do her job effectively, but the State Patrol as a whole."
Jim Michels, an attorney for the Minnesota State Patrol Trooper's Association, said Foss erred in judgement. He believes any Giglio impairment distinction needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, not as a broad application for one officer.
Maurstad has been a state trooper since 1994, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Reputation in town
Roseau defense attorney Alan B. Fish said he's had many legal filings with Maurstad over the years, several of which have been thrown out.
"She just lacks discretion," Fish said.
Fish has practiced law in Roseau County since 1995. He said at jury trials when the judge states Maurstad will be the testifying officer, "the jury will erupt in laughter." In cases involving Maurstad, he said the prosecutor will spend most of the trial defending the validity of her evidence to the jury.
"Respected cops don't get challenged," Fish said.
A Facebook group named "People of Roseau County against Sylvia Maurstad's Power Trip" has 426 members. Roseau County has a population of about 15,500.
Rick Rone is in his second stint as mayor of Baudette, Minn., in Lake of the Woods County, and has been fielding constituent complaints about Maurstad for years.
Eight years ago, Rone took an unusual step for a small town mayor: He drove 318 miles to St. Paul to meet with Col. Mark Dunaski, then the commander of the Minnesota State Patrol, to voice his concern.
"It was that big of an issue," Rone said. "It really was."
But the mayor said that meeting, and repeated conversations with Maurstad's supervisors in Thief River Falls, brought no change.
Rone said that as a mayor, he appreciates law enforcement, but feels that Maurstad's tactics border on harassment.