Court: Minnesota must refund restitution to stripper whose blackmail conviction was vacated
The case involves Bunny Byington, who admitted in Clay County District Court in September 2009 that she threatened to expose a pastor who paid her for nude dancing and sex unless he provided her with thousands of dollars in hush money.
MOORHEAD, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled the state of Minnesota must pay thousands of dollars to a stripper whose 2009 conviction for blackmailing a pastor she had sex with was vacated after the law she was charged under was deemed unconstitutional.
The case involves Bunny Byington, who admitted in Clay County District Court in September 2009 that she threatened to expose a Valley City, North Dakota, pastor who paid her for nude dancing and sex unless he provided her with thousands of dollars in hush money. At the time, Byington was a stripper in Moorhead.
According to court documents, the pastor paid Byington about $7,000 that she demanded from him, but after he refused to pay her an additional $18,000, she contacted his wife and church officials.
The pastor ultimately resigned from his job.
In October 2009, Byington was sentenced for her conviction on a charge of coercion to 90 days in jail and 10 years of probation.
She was also ordered to pay restitution of about $7,000 to the pastor and about $5,800 to Clay County Social Services for welfare payments the county said she was not entitled to because she didn't disclose income she received from the pastor.
After Byington completed her probation in 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in a separate case that the statute Byington was convicted of violating was so broad it violated the First Amendment.
Byington then filed a petition with the district court for post-conviction relief, seeking to have her conviction and sentence vacated.
Her petition was later amended to ask that the district court also order any restitution she paid be refunded to her.
The district court agreed that Byington's conviction and sentence should be vacated.
However, the court maintained that while Byington was legally entitled to a refund of the restitution she paid, the court said it lacked authority to specify who must pay back the money and how the payment would be secured.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the district court decision, but the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the case should be returned to the district court to determine what restitution refund Byington is owed.
"Payments Byington made to CCSS and the victim should be credited toward restitution on remand because she was ordered to pay this restitution as part of her sentence for a conviction that has been invalidated," the Supreme Court said in its ruling, adding that the state of Minnesota will be responsible to pay whatever amount is owed.
The Supreme Court ruling noted, however, that the record is unclear as to how much Byington actually paid in restitution.
Clay County Social Services credits Byington with having paid $2,725 in restitution, but there is no accounting for how much she paid to the pastor or how much she paid in fines and fees, the Supreme Court said.
The court noted Byington asserts about $10,000 went toward restitution, but she has not specified how much of that amount was credited toward restitution, as opposed to fines and fees.
Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said the Supreme Court ruling makes clear the "taxpayers of Minnesota would be forced to pay" for the restitution refund, but precisely where the money will come from is not spelled out.
"It would have to come out of some state agency, not sure what agency that would be, which was one of the points the state was making," Melton said.
"There is no specific agency that would be responsible, so it could be anything from the governor’s office to taking it out of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s budget," he added.