Opening statements held in case involving Hastings officer accused of theftSome 20 months after being accused of stealing a corkscrew from a restaurant here, Hastings police officer Rene Doffing is getting his day in court.
By: Chad Richardson, The Hastings Star-Gazette
Some 20 months after being accused of stealing a corkscrew from a restaurant here, Hastings police officer Rene Doffing is getting his day in court.
Doffing's theft trial began Monday afternoon in Dakota County court. He is being charged with two counts of theft related to the incident. The first count asserts Doffing stole the corkscrew and intended to permanently deprive the corkscrew from it's owner, the restaurant. The second count asserts Doffing stole the corkscrew and intended to temporarily deprive it from its owner.
At stake is Doffing's 18-year career with the Hastings Police Department, for if he is found guilty of either charge he would lose his peace officer's license and therefore his job.
Typically, in misdemeanor theft cases, like this one, defendants and their lawyers reach a plea agreement with the prosecution. The defendant would pay a fine or serve about 20 hours of community service and, so long as they don't commit another similar offense, the matter would be scrubbed from their record within a year.
Doffing, though, refused the plea offers, since he would lose his job if he were to admit guilt.
Therefore, the bottle opener case went to a jury trial this week in Hastings. The jury's verdict is expected to come down sometime late this week, likely either Thursday or Friday.
Testimony began in earnest on Tuesday afternoon, when opening statements were held and three witnesses took the stand.
The case is being prosecuted by an Eagan city attorney, Bill Bernard, who is handling the case to avoid any conflict of interest.
Doffing is being represented by Paul Engh.
Bernard went first with opening statements.
He said Doffing "deprived the owner, without the owner's consent, of that corkscrew."
Bernard said Doffing was indifferent to the rights of the owner, and that, due a special the Green Mill had going, the corkscrew was especially valuable to them.
For clients who purchased two pasta dishes, a bottle of wine came at no extra charge during the promotion. The openers were in great demand, Bernard said, especially with the Thanksgiving holiday coming later that week.
"(This is not) a piece of property that is worthless to its owners," he said.
Furthermore, Bernard said, the value of the item is of little legal consequence, saying the value of the corkscrew "doesn't matter" and that it was a piece of property owned by the restaurant.
It was then Engh's turn, and he told the jury that the case is "in the deepest sense, trivial."
In fact, he said, the restaurant likely didn't even have to buy the corkscrew. It was probably given to them as a promotion item.
Engh then asked the jury to not judge Doffing by one thing in his life, but rather by his whole life. He told the jury that Doffing, 48, grew up in Hastings and is a 1982 graduate of Hastings High School. His father acted as the superintendent of public works and his mother worked in a salon.
His father also operated a pizza restaurant in Hastings, and the restaurant business left a mark on Doffing, Engh said.
His "joyous" childhood, Engh said, was shattered when, on Nov. 22, 1979, his father died from a heart attack.
Doffing's older brother Randy had gone to college and Doffing, then 16, was tasked with becoming "the man of the house," Engh said.
Doffing has taken care of his mother ever since then, Engh said.
After graduation, Doffing attended technical college in Inver Grove Heights, then earned a Bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Mankato State University in four years.
"He was tremendously motivated," Engh said, paying for school himself.
He eventually earned a job in security at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant between Hastings and Red Wing.
"They trusted him to protect the nuclear plant," Engh said.
While working at Prairie Island, Doffing volunteered with the Hastings Police Department, starting in 1990. He was eventually hired as a full-time officer in 1994, "which was all he ever wanted," Engh said.
In his personal life, Doffing was married and has been so for 26 years, Engh said. He and his wife have had three children.
While working as an officer in Hastings, his odd hours, like working four days on and then four days off, got him to thinking about getting into the restaurant business on his own, as his father had done. He bought a restaurant in Vermillion that was in foreclosure and opened it, Engh said, to give his family members a place to work.
Doffing does everything there, from cooking and bar tending to cleaning, opening and closing.
Through that line of work, he became familiar with alcohol distribution businesses, and the promotional items they give away to push their products, including bottle openers.
Doffing also took an interest in marketing, Engh said. One of the ideas that surfaced to bring business to his bar was to get involved with pool leagues, which is something he started doing.
On Nov. 22, 2010, the date of the alleged corkscrew theft, Doffing had a pool meet in Vermillion. However, he was summoned to a meeting with the police officer's union that was going to take place that night at the Green Mill, and he agreed to go to it. The meeting had to do with voting on a contract, so Doffing attended. He got off from work at 6 p.m., rushed home, picked up his teenage son, changed clothes and came to the Green Mill. He arrived at approximately 6:15 p.m., Engh said.
His son sat at a table in the bar side of the restaurant.
Doffing then approached the bartender and asked for a soda, either a Coke or a Diet Coke.
"(He has) never had a drop of booze in his entire life," Engh said.
While waiting for the soda to be delivered by the bartender, Doffing saw a corkscrew in a bucket. He reached in and was "fascinated by the trinket," Engh said. Doffing knew the alcohol distributor for the Green Mill is the same one for his restaurant, and he wanted to get a similar item for his bar. He "fiddled" with the corkscrew by opening it and closing it and thought to himself, "this is kind of neat," Engh said. Doffing wanted to get a similar item for his restaurant and wanted to ask the Green Mill's owner about it, Engh said. He then put the item into his pocket with the intention of following up later with the owner.
Meanwhile, a man across the bar saw Doffing put the corkscrew in his pocket. That man, Engh said, didn't understand Doffing's motivations, saying that the man had "no clue" that Doffing "was into trinkets."
The man didn't know Doffing had his own restaurant, Engh said.
"You have to understand context to understand the case," Engh said emphatically.
Engh then talked about how the restaurant had, in the weeks before, received approximately 10 similar corkscrews, and eight of them had disappeared. Nobody was charged with a criminal offense for taking those, he said.
Engh then talked about how Doffing gave the opener back to the restaurant and left for his pool game in Vermillion.
Soon after, he learned that an investigation of the incident was under way.
Doffing eventually made an appointment on Jan. 10, 2011, to talk with the investigator from the Eagan Police Department, who was handling the case to avoid any conflict of interest.
However, on Jan. 7, 2011, Doffing was charged with theft. He then decided there was no reason to meet with the investigator, as he had already been charged.
"It's a rush to judgment," Engh said.
Engh said the investigation was not thorough since his client was not interviewed before the charges, and he said Doffing had no motive to commit the theft. He had approximately $200 in his pocket at the time of the incident, which he was going to use to pay for the pool league dues.
"He should never have been charged," Engh said.