Search warrants used by investigators to collect DNA and cell site evidence in a 2020 Carlton County sexual assault and kidnapping case weren't supported by probable cause and should have their results suppressed from an upcoming trial, defense for Dennis St. John said in a motion filed in June.

St. John, 54, is facing three counts of criminal sexual conduct with heinous elements and a charge of kidnapping after being indicted by a grand jury in October.

The indictment, which carries the possibility of life imprisonment, stems from an incident that allegedly occurred in July 2020 wherein St. John is accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting an adult woman at his Scanlon residence over the course of 34 hours.

With the case set for trial in September, defense counsel for St. John claims his Fourth Amendment rights to a lawful search and seizure were violated, and that as a result, certain DNA and cell site evidence should not be permitted in the courtroom.

Dennis Michael St. John Jr. (2021 handout)
Dennis Michael St. John Jr. (2021 handout)

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DNA evidence

According to court documents, the Cloquet Police Department received a call from the alleged victim on the morning of July 19, 2020, reporting that she had just escaped St. John's home. Police advised her to go to a hospital, where she underwent a sexual assault nurse examination. An investigating officer obtained a search warrant for a sample of St. John's DNA on July 20, 2020.

Defense attorneys for St. John claim the warrant affidavit didn't assert that any testing had been conducted to determine whether DNA was present on any physical evidence related to the investigation and, therefore, failed to establish probable cause.

PREVIOUSLY:

"The absence of testing meant that (the investigating officer) could not assert that DNA was actually present to compare with the sample he sought to collect from Mr. St. John," a July 12 memo from the defense said.

Statements from the alleged victim that were corroborated by officers' observations should serve as probable cause, the state responded in a July 23 memo.

"In this case ... the victim of the offense was an identified citizen witness describing to officers her direct observation and experience of physical and sexual assault," the memo said. "As such, her statements are presumed credible."

Court documents state that the officer taking the victim’s statement noted bruises on her face, arms, hands and legs. A search warrant executed at St. John's residence also recovered clothing the victim told police she left behind, with a subsequent search resulting in a pair of women’s underwear and two knives being found in St. John's pockets.

Cell site evidence

In addition to DNA evidence, the defense argues that cell site evidence should also be suppressed from trial on the grounds that it was obtained without probable cause and through means that violated state statute.

The alleged victim in the case claims that she and St. John met at Black Bear Casino and Resort in Carlton the night the alleged sexual assault and kidnapping incident began. According to the criminal complaint, she said they left the casino about 11 p.m. and went to St. John’s home, where he allegedly physically and sexually assaulted her repeatedly.

Court documents allude to the fact that a warrant for data from St. John and the alleged victim's cellphones was granted to investigating officers on the basis that it would be used to corroborate witness statements and timelines — a legal rationale that the defense calls "anemic."

"Helpfulness to law enforcement is not the same as probable cause," the defense argued in the July memo.

The defense also claims that the warrant, which was issued Oct. 29, 2020, was invalid by the time the cellphone data was collected and analyzed in December under a Minnesota statute that states “a search warrant must be executed and returned to the court which issued it within ten days after its date.”

The state argues that the warrant was technically executed the same day it was issued, with law enforcement taking possession of the property and things listed in the warrant.

"There is a distinction between the time when a search warrant is executed and the time when law enforcement obtains data and conducts an analysis of that data," the memo filed by the state said.

The court has yet to file a ruling on the motions.