Nobles County Attorney supports bill to eliminate deportation as consequence of gross misdemeanor convictions

House File 43 — and its senate companion SF816 — would eliminate the threat of deportation by bringing the state and federal definitions of a gross misdemeanor in line with one another.

Minnesota Capitol

WORTHINGTON — A bill that would lessen the maximum term of incarceration for a gross misdemeanor from 365 days to 364 days has passed in the Minnesota House of Representatives without opposition.

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While the one day reduction may seem small, it has large consequences.

Currently, that one day marks an overlap between what the state of Minnesota considers a gross misdemeanor and what federal law defines as a felony. Under federal law, a felony is an offense punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of more than one year — which, currently includes Minnesota gross misdemeanors.

“Going forward, gross misdemeanors would be no more than 364 days (for a) maximum jail consequence. And they've also had an amendment to change the definition of a felony to be 365 days or more to eliminate that gap,” explained Nobles County Attorney Joe Sanow, who provided a letter in support of the bill to the House Public Safety Committee.

As of right now, the misalignment leaves non-citizens in Minnesota, who have been convicted of a gross misdemeanor, subject to deportation in the eyes of federal law.


For example, if two individuals commit the exact same gross misdemeanor offense, and the only difference between the two cases is that one individual has citizenship status and the other doesn't, that second individual could face deportation while the first faces, at maximum, a year and a day incarcerated.

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“That’s quite a difference in outcomes,” Sanow said. “ For these lower-level offenses, like gross misdemeanors, where people don't typically go to prison, that seems to me to be a disproportionate response.”

House File 43 — and its senate companion SF816 — would eliminate the threat of deportation by bringing the state and federal definitions of a gross misdemeanor in line with one another.

Most commonly, Sanow noted, gross misdemeanor cases seen by his office involve second- or third-degree driving while intoxicated charges with aggravating factors. However, the county attorney’s office also sees a number of domestic assault-related gross misdemeanors, which can include violations of orders for protection. Some low-level drug offenses also fall under gross misdemeanors.

While the Nobles County Attorney's office has a policy of capping gross misdemeanor sentences at 360 days in order to avoid disparities and unintended consequences like deportation, the bill to redefine gross misdemeanors would negate the issue across the state.

“I think part of the reason for this legislation is to try to create a uniform minimum standard in all 87 counties,” Sanow said, “and individual prosecutors would still have the discretion to do something less, like 360, or whatever is appropriate for the facts of that case.”

Should the bill pass, Sanow said he plans to keep the 360-day policy in place, which applies to everyone regardless of citizenship status, race, or country of origin. It’s been in place since before Sanow took the position of county attorney, and has helped with “prompt, fair and consistent” resolutions of gross misdemeanor cases, allowing for more time to focus on felony cases.

“I expect it will pass,” Sanow said of the bill. “There seems to be broad bipartisan support for it based on the comments from the committee.”


The Minnesota House version of the bill passed the floor in a 125-0 vote on Thursday. It is scheduled to be introduced in the Senate on Monday.

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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