Albert Lea business owner defends herself in criminal trial

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(ABC 6 News) – The criminal trial for Albert Lea restaurant owner Lisa Hanson continues this week. Hanson is facing 9 misdemeanor charges, and this trial covers six of them — for defying Governor Tim Walz’s executive order.

This comes after she re-opened her restaurant — The Interchange — during a mandated COVID-19 shut-down last winter. Each misdemeanor could result in a fine of up to 1,000 dollars or 90 days in jail.

Wednesday the court heard opening statements, and heard from five witnesses for the prosecution. Three witnesses were from the Minnesota Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division, and two were from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Prosecutor and Albert Lea City Attorney Kelly Martinez supplied a brief opening statement, outlining that she has to prove Hanson knowingly defied emergency orders, and that The Interchange was open and serving customers during the shutdown.

Hanson chose to waive her right to an attorney. She’s representing herself. Hanson’s opening statement was not as brief, as she tried many times to argue the constitutionality of the governor’s emergency powers as well as the state statute that surrounds this case. Judge Joseph Bueltel then had to explain to Hanson that she is not allowed to make a legal argument in an opening statement. Additionally, the court already ruled in her pre-trial hearing that arguing The Constitution in front of the jury would be confusing and improper.

Martinez’s opening witness was Carla Cincotta, chief enforcement officer of the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division. Cincotta testified that Hanson first got on her radar from the restaurant-owner’s involvement in the Reopen MN Coalition — a group of businesses that planned to open their doors despite Walz’s emergency order or public health concerns.

Martinez brought evidence from The Interchange’s Facebook page, which included a handful of posts saying things like "As the owner of The Interchange, I have decided to open for in-door dining Dec. 16." She also brought a cease and desist order from the Health Department, liquor license suspension notices, and news reports to prove The Interchange was open.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison brought a civil suit against The Interchange in Dec. 2020, and a Freeborn County District Court found Hanson in civil contempt of court in Jan. 2021. The Interchange was then required to pay a $9,000 dollar fine. Ellison did not bring the criminal charges but believes it’s an important move by the state.

"While the misdemeanor criminal trial is not the Attorney General’s prosecution, I support Albert Lea City Attorney Kelly Martinez’s efforts to hold Ms. Hanson accountable under the law," Ellison said in a statement. "The Governor put in place reasonable and constitutional executive orders, which had the force of law, to protect all Minnesotans from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Almost every single Minnesota business owner complied with those orders: Ms. Hanson, however, thought she was above the law, but she is not. I applaud City Attorney Martinez for holding Ms. Hanson accountable."

Wednesday wrapped with the prosecutor questioning Matthew Finkenbiner, a state health inspector. He served Hanson her cease and desist order, and when she didn’t halt restaurant operations he went back the next day to confirm she knew she was defying state law. Hanson will start off Thursday with the opportunity to cross examine Finkenbiner. He, along with each other witness, testified that he saw customers patronizing The Interchange in late December 2020 when the bistro was supposed to be closed.

Bueltel said he is expecting the trial to wrap up by the end of the week — Monday at the latest.