Ex-Viking sacked by Minn. appeals court

Friday, April 2, 2010

In the 1960s and '70s Carl Eller starred as a key member of the vaunted Minnesota Vikings defensive line known as the “Purple People Eaters.” During his storied professional NFL career, Eller tallied more than 130 sacks, but this week the Pro Football Hall of Famer was sacked by a Minnesota appeals court. The court rejected his argument that a trial judge improperly considered Eller's out-of-court allegations of police bias and corruption when imposing his sentence stemming from a drunk-driving incident.

In April 2008, Minneapolis police arrested Eller on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol after he nearly hit a police car and of assault after he tangled with officers. A district court convicted him of fourth-degree assault and second-degree DWI for refusing to submit to chemical testing. While his trial proceeded, Eller accused the police of bias and criticized the court in several statements made outside court.

During sentencing, District Judge Daniel Mabley said: “Disagreeing and disputing and fighting for your rights is one thing, but misleading the public through your access to the media is another. It’s one thing to be quiet or not agree with what’s being said about you; it’s another to turn it around and to call them, in effect, corrupt, racist, and biased, and to, in effect, repeat the same thing about the Court.”

Prosecutors sought a 60-day sentence for Eller to be served at home with electronic monitoring. However, Judge Mabley exceeded the prosecutor’s recommendation and sentenced Eller to serve 120 days in a workhouse, with 60 to be served at the workhouse and the next 60 at home with electronic monitoring.

Eller contended that Mabley improperly considered his critical comments, which he contended were protected by the First Amendment. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed in its March 30th opinion in State v. Eller.

The appeals court reasoned that “assuming those statements were constitutionally protected speech, and while it is true that the district court mentioned them during sentencing, it does not appear that [Eller's] sentence was based on these statements.” Instead, the appeals court said the district court noted the statements to show that Eller showed a lack of remorse, a key factor in many sentencing decisions.

Eller also argued that the district court judge improperly considered his criticisms when he ordered Eller to begin serving his first 60 days in the workhouse immediately after the sentencing hearing. Mabley stated:

“I believe that the Court has basically been put in the position where, by showing any lenience in the manner you suggest, it would suggest to the public and those present that his defenses that he has put up and his accusations about police corruption and court corruption have merit. I believe, as he had access to the media and misused it by misleading the public, I have to send a message that I do not find credible what he has asserted in his defense, and the best way that I can do it is by taking him into custody.”

Eller argued that Mabley's comments clearly showed that he imposed a tougher sentence owing to Eller's speech about police and court corruption. The Minnesota appeals court noted that the trial judge’s comments “did reflect a poor choice of words because they created the false impression that the district court was not basing its decision on the underlying facts and circumstances present in the record before it.”

However, the appeals court reasoned that Eller committed two gross misdemeanors and that such crimes justified serving the sentence immediately. The court added that the issue was moot because Eller had already served his 120-day sentence.

The appeals court concluded that Eller’s criminal sentence “was not improperly affected by his out-of-court statements.”

Eller has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis and numerous officers, alleging racial bias, false arrest and excessive force.

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