ST. PAUL, Minn. - A Minnesota lawmaker is calling on the state legislature to close legal loopholes that allow some admitted child molesters to pass official state background checks – and, in at least one case, drive a school bus for elementary students.
Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Dist. 2A) says he is drafting new legislation in the wake of a KARE 11 Investigation that exposed how the records of some child rapists, molesters, and people who’ve been caught with child pornography are not listed on Minnesota’s sex offender registry or the state’s public online courts database.
From babysitters to bus drivers, KARE 11’s investigation discovered sexual predators with dangerous secrets – kept hidden by a legal system some say, is seemingly more concerned with preserving the privacy of pedophiles than protecting the public.
Despite admitting their guilt, some sex offenders are granted a special status that makes their past largely secret.
The Bus Driver
Glenn David Johnson, 52, pled guilty in October to fourth-degree Criminal Sexual Conduct for molesting a teenage girl in his home.
It was not the first time the Blaine man admitted to a sex offense, but that didn’t stop him from passing a background check to drive a school bus.
At the time of his arrest in March, Johnson was a bus driver in the Anoka-Hennepin school district transporting kids to and from Blaine High School, Roosevelt Middle School and Jefferson Elementary school.
Records show he had admitted molesting a young child, years earlier.
Law enforcement records obtained by KARE 11 document how Johnson was charged in 1997 with molesting a 14-year-old girl.
The allegations surfaced after the teenager’s mother found her looking up the word “molestation” in a dictionary.
A police report says Johnson admitted rubbing the girl’s vaginal area.
In a recorded interview, Johnson was questioned by an Anoka County Sheriff’s investigator.
“Okay where did you touch her on her body, do you remember?” asked Investigator Jodi Wallin.
“Yeah, in between her legs,” Johnson replied according to a transcript of the interview.
Johnson entered a guilty plea in 1998 but received what Minnesota law calls a Stay of Adjudication. That’s a type of plea bargain that allows a defendant to plead guilty in open court but ultimately avoid a formal conviction.
“This was a very difficult case,” said Paul Young. He heads the criminal division of the Anoka County Attorney’s office and prosecuted Johnson two decades ago.
He said the plea deal was better than risking losing the case at trial because of shaky evidence.
“We didn’t reach the perfect result, but the risk of an acquittal or the need to have to outright dismissal was very real,” Young told KARE 11.
Instead of accepting the guilty plea, a judge placed Johnson on probation and agreed to dismiss the charges if he successfully completed it. So, despite admitting guilt, the charges against Johnson were dismissed in 2000.
He now had a clean criminal history and became one of Minnesota’s secret sex offenders.
Exposing Secret Sex Offenders
In a series of reports beginning in November 2016, KARE 11 detailed examples of how little-known legal loopholes allow hundreds of child sexual predators in Minnesota to slip under the radar, leaving parents in the dark about the danger they may pose. Sometimes with tragic consequences.
“We didn’t know, we had no idea,” said the mother of an 11-year-old Ramsey County girl molested by a landlord who also was a babysitter for the child.
The family did not know he had already admitted molesting another child.
Eugene Robert Finch, 47, had been charged with Criminal Sexual Conduct in Carlton County in 2014. If convicted, he was facing three years in prison and placement on Minnesota’s Sex Offender Registry.
But even though Finch entered a guilty plea, records show it was part of a deal with prosecutors that ultimately allowed him to dodge an official conviction.
Just like bus driver Glenn Johnson, Finch received a Stay of Adjudication – which even prevented his original criminal charges from appearing on the state’s public online court records system.
Stays of Adjudications are officially considered “pending” cases while the defendant serves probation.
According to rules approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court, pending cases aren’t supposed to appear online. The Court’s official policy is to “prevent records of pending criminal matters from being electronically searched” even with “the court’s own electronic search tools.”
In effect, that policy kept Finch’s record hidden from the mother of his next victim. If she looked up his name on the online court database, she would not have found his sexual assault charges – or his admission of guilt.
Since a Stay of Adjudication doesn’t result in an official conviction, defendants like Finch also avoid being listed on Minnesota’s official Sex Offender Registry.
The girl’s mother says those loopholes in the law put her family at risk.
“I feel like I should have known,” she said while sobbing. “I feel like this whole thing could have been prevented.”
What’s more, the lack of a conviction also allows defendants to pass official background checks done by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). In a statement, a spokesperson told KARE 11:
“A school district or school bus company can evaluate an individual by conducting a Child Protection Act background check under section 299C.62. The statute authorizes the release of conviction data, but does not authorize the release of stays of adjudication.” (Emphasis in the original statement).
In Glenn Johnson’s case, both the school district and the bus company told KARE 11 they were unaware of the driver’s history.
Calls for Reform
After viewing KARE 11’s reports, Governor Mark Dayton called for changes in the way Minnesota sentences sex offenders.
“The public deserves a right to know,” Governor Dayton told KARE 11 last February. The governor explained he believes in second chances, and giving sex offenders a chance to become law abiding, responsible citizens. However, he said that doesn’t mean their crimes should be shielded from the public.
“Innocent people need to know that there are people around them who have a history of sexual abuse, and we need to protect the public first and foremost,” Dayton said.
RELATED: Governor Dayton's reaction here
Some lawmakers also vowed to take action. During the last session, Rep. Grossell introduced a bill calling for a complete ban on Stays of Adjudication.
“It should not be acceptable that they receive a Stay of Adjudication which turns into nothing,”
Grossell told fellow lawmakers during a legislative hearing. “We’ve got several examples that have just been in the news recently of Stays of Adjudication coming back to haunt people. Because this predator has raped a child, has had sex with a 13-year-old, right on down the line, and they’ve come back, flown under the radar, and have struck again.”
But Rep. Grossell’s bill totally eliminating Stays of Adjudication was opposed by lobbyists for defense attorneys and the County Attorney’s Association who claimed the plea deals are a valuable tool in hard-to-prove cases.
It passed through the House Public Safety Committee and was included in the Omnibus Public Safety bill. But it came to a screeching halt when the GOP-controlled Senate refused to take up the proposal last session.
“This bill is very complex,” said Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Dist 34), Chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. “Due to the limitation of our time in the Senate, we did not have enough information on it,” he said.
RELATED: Sex sentencing reform bill fails
“It is not a question of not taking action,” said Sen. Limmer. “We want to do the job right; we need more time.”
“I don’t like to say it died, it got delayed.” Rep. Grossell recently told KARE 11.
Grossell said he’s been working with stakeholders in the legal system to modify his proposal in time for the upcoming legislative session. He says he still wants to better protect the public and increase transparency, but his compromise proposal may not totally eliminate stays.
“Even if it’s a Stay of Adjudication, let’s say, that they’re going to have to register as a predatory offender,” Grossell said of one of the new options being discussed.
Some advocates still favor a total ban on such stays if the cases involve children. The National Association to Protect Children – PROTECT - says California outlawed the use of Stays of Adjudication in child sex cases in 2005, and has called on Minnesota to do the same.
“The number one weapon of a sexual predator is camouflage,” said Grier Weeks of PROTECT.
“And the way Minnesota is giving people these Stays of Adjudication gives them camouflage. It wipes clean their record and that’s a very dangerous thing.”
Glenn Johnson, the school bus driver with the previous Stay of Adjudication, will be sentenced for his latest sex crime against a child in January. While he will have to register as a sex offender this time, his old Stay of Adjudication may still play a role in how he will be sentenced.
Because he officially has no criminal history, Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines call for probation rather than prison for his latest offense.
If you have a suggestion for a KARE 11 investigation or want to blow the whistle on fraud or government waste, email us at Investigations@kare11.com