Jury finds Interchange owner guilty on all counts; judge sentences to 90 days

Published 11:25 am Thursday, December 9, 2021

The owner of The Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro was sentenced to 90 days in jail Thursday afternoon for opening up her business for in-person dining in defiance of state executive orders put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The sentence, by Judge Joseph Bueltel, came after a six-member jury deliberated for about one hour and found restaurant owner Lisa Hanson guilty on six misdemeanor counts of violating an emergency executive order. 

Hanson, who represented herself in the case, was remanded to the custody of the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office.

Bueltel, before issuing his sentencing, said Walz’s executive orders had the “full force and effect of law” and talked about the state statute that was followed for the orders to be put in place.

He said the orders, first enacted in November 2020, were put in place because of the public safety concern of COVID-19. There was an uptick in cases and no vaccine available to people. He said protection came from staying apart from each other, wearing masks and following these orders. He noted that “significant” people have died during the pandemic.

“You got to understand the law applies to you,” Bueltel said. “You were a public risk because you kept your business open.”

He said Hanson was able to “roll in the dough” while others down the street closed their businesses in compliance with the orders. He referenced other business owners or close relatives of business owners who were in the group of potential jurors who were dismissed because of how they were affected during that time.

“They did the right thing and prevented the public risk,” he said. “You did the exact opposite and cashed in when you could.”

He said he did not think Hanson could be rehabilitated in ways that some other defendants might be able to.

“I think you’re a political protester,” he said. “You knowingly and willingly violated the law to make a point.”

He noted, however, that Hanson had other options to make her point, namely getting both the state House and Senate to vote to end the executive orders. He said his real concern was that Hanson didn’t want to recognize the law and that it applies to her.

Bueltel said his decision to send Hanson to jail was the only way he felt he could get his point across to Hanson and send a message to the community. Hanson before and during the trial has tried to argue that the executive orders were not law and that they were unconstitutional. 

Prior to his sentencing City Attorney Kelly Martinez had argued Hanson spend 10 days in jail and that the remaining 80 days be stayed, along with a $500 fine plus court costs. She also had asked the judge to prohibit The Interchange’s farewell Christmas event that was slated for Thursday evening.

Martinez said despite the risks and education provided to Hanson about COVID-19, she chose to defy the law, and she said she still believed Hanson was an ongoing public safety risk and would not be amenable to probation.

Hanson argued she has not operated her business since Feb. 9 though she has continued to pay rent and utilities even with it being closed. She asked the judge to consider that she didn’t have a record other than possibly a few speeding tickets and the arrest tied to this case when she had not appeared for a hearing. She said she did not think it was appropriate for someone of her nature to be put in jail and said she tries to live a good, honest life.

“There’s no reason to put a person like me behind bars. …” she said. “Just because I have a passion for liberty and freedom I don’t think that’s any reason to put anyone behind bars.”

She said she also has three grandchildren who will soon be born.

The judge issued a 90-day sentence to be spent concurrently on each of the counts. The counts represented different dates the business was open in December 2020 and January 2021. Hanson will also be required to pay a $1,000 fine plus court costs.

Martinez after the sentencing declined to comment pending Hanson’s other criminal case with three counts that is still pending. In that case she faces two counts of violating an emergency executive order and one count of public nuisance.

Keith Haskell, state coordinator with the National Action Task Force, who assisted Hanson in preparing her case for trial, said he was surprised in some ways with how fast the jury came back with a verdict, but in other ways he wasn’t surprised because of how much evidence he said the judge would not let in for the case.

He said Hanson had asked Bueltel be recused from the case because of his interpretation of some laws and his refusal to look at other laws.

“We have the right in this country to say that there’s bias within our court system before we get to this point,” Haskell said. “We also have the right in the system to say there was bias in the courtroom after.”

He also questioned how the governor decided which businesses could be open and why The Interchange’s owner was the only person to be charged criminally in the state with violations.

He said Hanson plans to appeal the conviction and also referenced paperwork that was slated to be filed in federal court on Friday.

 

Earlier testimony

On the witness stand Thursday morning were Minnesota Department of Health Sanitarian Supervisor Matt Finkenbiner, Albert Lea Director of Public Safety J.D. Carlson and two people who had been in the restaurant after it was ordered to be closed for in-person dining.

Hanson opted not to testify.

Finkenbiner, who was questioned by City Attorney Kelly Martinez on Wednesday, during Hanson’s cross examination referenced state statute that allows him in his duties with the Department of Health to enforce executive orders. He said the restaurant’s business license is contingent on compliance with state law. 

Carlson said he was made aware of the state’s executive orders through communication from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington. He said he had an open door policy with business owners and tried to focus more on education over enforcement of the state orders.

He said early on he visited with Hanson and her husband, Vern, at the coffee shop where they discussed Hanson’s intent to stay open for indoor dining. He said he gave the family information on the order.

On Dec. 16, he received a Facebook message from someone telling him the restaurant was going to be open and asked what the department was going to do. He also received emails from the Department of Health, asking if the department could assist the state department on whether the restaurant was open. He said he communicated with the state that the restaurant appeared to be open.

Carlson said he was aware of state law that authorizes the police department to enforce executive orders and noted that updates he received from the Department of Public Safety commissioner included statute to cover authorization of enforcement.

Todd Pearson, who became friends with Hanson in late 2020, said he went to The Interchange Dec. 23 and then interviewed Hanson on another instance at a different location. He said she told him it was her intent to stay open.

Pearson, a U.S. Army veteran, said he covers public interests from a different perspective than mainstream media, and has a Rumble and YouTube channel called Minnesota Black Robe Regiment. He said he launched his channel because he believes people should stand up to “tyrannical overreach at all levels.”

Hanson referenced a Facebook post Pearson had made that talked about how he was looking forward to interviewing her. He noted he posted a video that showed the inside of The Interchange juxtaposed against other larger businesses in Rochester that were packed to capacity.

Hanson asked to show the video link on the Facebook post, but that notion was objected to by Martinez and sustained by the judge.

Debra Proulx, who was previously shown in a television interview with KAAL-TV, said she went to The Interchange Dec. 16, when she believes she had a tea from the restaurant. She had acknowledged in the interview with the TV station that there was an executive order and she didn’t think it should be there.

Bueltel, on multiple occasions when the jury was out of the courtroom, told Hanson he was not going to allow her to argue the constitutionality of the state executive orders and essentially tell the jury to ignore the law and acquit her. He said it was improper to encourage the jurors to find her not guilty regardless of the law.

Hanson again brought up that she thinks executive orders are not law, and Bueltel referenced his earlier order on the matter.

“I don’t see justice here in the court today … haven’t seen  justice since I’ve been involved with these cases,” Hanson said.

Hanson in her closing arguments said she was in court because of the phrase “you only have rights if you exercise those rights.”

She tried to raise doubt about the witnesses and tried to raise the issue that there cannot be a breach without an established duty.

She encouraged any juror who might not be satisfied with the prosecution’s presentation to hold true to their convictions.

Martinez pointed out how many of the witnesses described the executive orders as having the full force and effect of law and that the various state and local agencies worked together to ensure compliance.

She read posts she said Hanson made on The Interchange’s Facebook page inviting people to the restaurant, describing the food they had for purchase, the live music and other things — what she described as “admissions” of Hanson.

She said despite numerous conversations with both state and local agents, Hanson decided to violate the executive orders and open for indoor dining.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” she said of all of the elements the jury was asked to decide.