Prosecutors must prove intent before builders can be jailed for a building code violation, according to a recent ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The ruling, issued on the final day of 2003, set free general contractor John Arkell, who faced a 90-day jail term and $1,000 fine after being sentenced by a lower court and losing on appeal. (See “Penal Code!”, September 2003, page 37.)

The case came to prominence in Minnesota because it was the first time in state history that a builder faced jail time for a building code violation. Both the county trial court and appeals court ruled that a building code violation is a public welfare statute, which means the public may be at risk once a home is built. Violators of a public welfare statute can be subject to criminal charges, but most cases center around hazardous chemical spills or food and drug tampering.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that classifying a building code violation as a public welfare statute would set a dangerous precedent.