Free Speech

Sex Offender Tries to Change Name to "Better Off Dead"

No, says the trial court, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals agrees.

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From In re Larson, decided last week by the Minnesota Court of Appeals:

Appellant Hollis John Larson has been indeterminately civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program as a sexually dangerous person since 2008. He professes a religious belief involving Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Agnosticism. He is seeking to change his name to "Better Off Dead" in accordance with that religious belief and to express his freedom of speech….

Minn. Stat. Section 259.13 outlines the process by which a convicted felon can change his name…. Appellant had the burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the name-change request "is not based upon an intent to defraud or mislead, is made in good faith, will not cause injury to a person, and will not compromise public safety."

Appellant testified, but cannot establish, that he did not intend to defraud or mislead and stated in his motion for a name change that "virtually every/any document created by his current captors with the name 'Better Off Dead' will also state 'fka Hollis John Larson.'" Because his new and old names would be inextricably linked, appellant contends that changing his name would not compromise the public's ability to maintain or access his records. In its objection, the county argued that granting appellant's name change would compromise public safety because it would interfere with the state's ability to maintain his records and retain identification information for use in future investigations or prosecutions, and it would prevent the public from having immediate access to his criminal records.

The district court found that "[c]hanging one's name to a common expression such as 'Better Off Dead' has every potential to be misleading, [and] confusing," triggering a circumstance prohibited by the statute. Moreover, the district court upheld the prosecution's objection, which focused exclusively on public safety. We can infer from the district court's order that it agreed that granting appellant's name change would burden public safety, and it did not find appellant credible. We defer to the district court's determinations of credibility. Because "Better Off Dead" is an idiom and contains no pronouns [I assume the court meant "no proper names"-EV], it is an inherently misleading name.

Moreover, we are not convinced that appellant will identify himself as both "Better Off Dead" and his current name going forward. Appellant failed to meet his burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that his name-change request is not based on an impermissible factor. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the name-change request….

We review the denial of a name-change application for an abuse of discretion, but we review the distinct question of whether denying a name-change application infringes on a constitutional right de novo. See State v. Pedersen (Minn. App. 2004) (stating that we review de novo whether application of a statute is unconstitutional as applied)….

The Minnesota Supreme Court employs a heightened "compelling state interest balancing test" when determining whether a challenged law infringes on or interferes with religious practices. This test has four prongs: (1) whether the objector's beliefs are sincerely held; (2) whether the state regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs; (3) whether the state interest in the regulation is overriding or compelling; and (4) whether the state regulation uses the least restrictive means…. To determine the first, second, and fourth factors, the district court must assess the sincerity and implications of appellant's religious beliefs. To determine the third factor, the district court must make a legal determination based on the statute and caselaw. We review mixed questions of fact and law for erroneous applications of law, but give discretion to the district court's factual findings and ultimate conclusion and review those conclusions under an abuse-of-discretion standard.

Regarding the first factor, appellant described his religion as including the belief that the only way for him to "achieve reconciliation with the divine" is to escape the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth by being and remaining dead. Hence, the name "Better Off Dead." After hearing appellant's testimony, the district court determined that "[p]etitioner failed to show that prohibiting him from changing his legal name to 'Better Off Dead' infringes on a constitutional right." The court elaborated that "[t]he expression 'Better Off Dead' does not have a known connection to any particular religious faith or belief." The district court's finding was sufficiently particularized because it implies that the [four] factors weighed against appellant. {While we conclude that the district court presented sufficient findings to support its decision in this case, we encourage district courts to make detailed findings in their analysis of the [four-]factor test as opposed to relying solely on a form order.} We infer from the court's conclusion that it did not find appellant credible and as a result did not believe he sincerely held his belief. We defer to this credibility determination. State regulation cannot burden an insincere belief, so the second factor also is not met. As a result, we need not determine the third or fourth … factors.{ Even if we were to weigh these factors, we note that the supreme court has acknowledged the state's interest in public safety as a compelling government interest. Furthermore, the only available options for the state were to accept or deny the name-change petition, meaning that denying the petition was the least restrictive means to uphold public safety.}…

Appellant [also] described his desired name change "as an exercise of his fundamental right to free speech and freedom of expression." He testified that the name change is "a peaceful form of protest against [the government], all these entities that caused me this pain and suffering and leading to my … philosophy in life." Appellant elaborated that changing his name would be the best way for him to officially communicate his life philosophy to society.

The district court determined that "[appellant] failed to show that prohibiting him from changing his legal name to 'Better Off Dead' infringes on a constitutional right." Implicit in this conclusion is the belief that denying the name change did not burden appellant's freedom of speech. Appellant failed to provide specific authority regarding the free-speech right to change one's name under these circumstances, and there appears to be none. We conclude that the district court did not improperly reject appellant's freedom-of-speech argument and did not abuse its discretion by denying his name-change petition.