Minnesota’s relentless decade-long pursuit of dairy farmer Michael Hartmann finally ran off the road, when a state judge ruled earlier this month that the state conducted an illegal search of the farmer’s truck.
In a strongly worded 30-page opinion, Minnesota Judge Erica MacDonald ruled that a state trooper, with help from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, illegally searched Hartmann’s truck and seized raw milk and cheese after a stop in December 2012. The trooper was allowed to stop the truck when he couldn’t see the rear license plate, the judge said, but once he found that the plate was just dirty, and that there was a front license plate, he was obligated to send Hartmann on his way, since there was no violation of motor vehicle or traffic laws. Instead, the trooper called the MDA, which told him to search the truck and confiscate product.
The judge’s ruling, in response to a filing by Hartmann, has the effect of throwing out the state’s key evidence in yet another criminal case it has planned against Hartmann for selling raw dairy products to eager Minneapolis-area residents. Hartmann a year ago pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of illegally selling raw milk as part of a plea bargain, sacrificing himself to get misdemeanor charges dropped against his wife and brother. (The state didn't just target Michael Hartmann, but expanded its campaign to include his entire family.)
The MN battle has featured a clearly vindictive MDA against a farmer determined to stand up for what he feels are his constitutional rights under both the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions. As part of her compilation of events in the case, Judge MacDonald made a reference to MDA investigator James Roettger: “Mr. Roettger has been investigating Defendant’s possible violations of the food laws for approximately ten years.”
The state had intensified its pursuit of Hartmann when, in 2010, more than a dozen people were alleged to have been sickened with E.coli O157:H7 in milk from his farm. While agriculture and public health regulators are supposed to allow food producers to resume production once the pathogen problem has abated, that never happened for Hartmann. The state’s legal assault simply intensified over the last three years, culminating in several seizures of his trucks and food, and the guilty plea and probation a year ago.
Beyond the product seizure issue, Judge MacDonald erected another barrier to the state’s case by endorsing a 2005 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling some years ago, in a previous case involving Hartmann, that the state’s constitution, which allows farmers to peddle the products of their farm. She noted that the state’s Supreme Court specifically gave Hartmann the right to sell meat raised on his farm.
“The (Supreme) Court did not deal with whether Defendant adding ingredients from outside of Defendant’s farm disqualifies certain items he sells as being considered a product of his farm. What is clear is that cheese was directly considered by the Supreme Court’s decision, and it concluded that dictionary definitions ‘support the generally accepted notion that meat, cheese, and butter are products of the farm.’ Thus, Defendant is not required to have a license to sell cheese that he makes on his farm. Defendant’s production of ice cream and yogurt are another matter. According to testimony, Defendant’s ice cream contained chocolate chips and vanilla. Chocolate and vanilla are not products produced by Defendant occupying and cultivating his farm. Yogurt also requires bacterial culture, something that Defendant was not producing on his farm. Thus, because yogurt and ice cream are not products of his farm, Defendant is required to have a license to sell these products.”
While she didn’t mention raw milk, it would seem that if cheese and butter are exempt from licensing, then raw milk is, as well.
Judge MacDonald made clear in her decision that she felt obligated to defend Hartmann’s constitutional rights, despite personal misgivings she has about the farmer. She said she “considered this case carefully” and did “not issue (the) opinion cavalierly. It is troublesome that Defendant pled guilty to this Court (a year ago) and gave his word as a condition of probation that he would comply with the requirements of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture but willfully failed to honor that pledge. That being said, the evidence seized pursuant to the search of his truck was seized in violation of his constitutional rights. No matter how frustrated this Court of the State is with his disregard of the law or his word, the violation of Defendant’s constitutional rights can neither be tolerated nor condoned.”
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Judges are supposed to back the constitutional rights of all Americans, despite the judges’ own personal prejudices.
Ironically, Judge MacDonald's admonishment of Hartmann comes despite the fact that most of her legal opinion amounts to admiration of his persistence in standing up for his constitutional rights and endorsement of his continuing to sell food in accordance with Minnesota's constitution.
David Gumpert is author most recently of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat.
Reprinted with permission.