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Category: Restraining Orders

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128 – violation of protective order

State v. Fowers – 2023 UT App 128

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellant,

v.

THOMAS FOWERS,

Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20220073-CA

Filed October 26, 2023

Fourth District Court, Provo Department

The Honorable Robert A. Lund

No. 201402484

Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey D. Mann, Attorneys for

Appellant, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker[1]

Douglas J. Thompson, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JOHN D. LUTHY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

LUTHY, Judge:

¶1        Thomas Fowers’s ex-wife (Ex-Wife) is married to his adopted brother (Brother). A court issued a protective order directing Fowers not to “contact . . . or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly,” and not to “threaten to commit any form of violence against” her. Early one morning, Fowers called Brother’s phone three times in two minutes from an unrecognized number. The first two times, no one answered. The third time, Ex-Wife answered, and Fowers said, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶2        Fowers was charged with violating the protective order. The district court declined to bind Fowers over and dismissed the charge, determining that there was “no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers . . . intentionally communicat[ed] either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife]” since “the statement itself clearly [was] directed at [Brother]” and Fowers did not tell Brother “to direct the comment to [Ex-Wife].” The State appeals, and we reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶3        Ex-Wife obtained a protective order against Fowers in August 2017. The order included a “No Contact Order” stating, “Do not contact, phone, mail, e-mail, or communicate in any way with [Ex-Wife], either directly or indirectly.” It also included a “Personal Conduct Order” stating, “Do not commit, try to commit or threaten to commit any form of violence against [Ex-Wife] . . . . This includes stalking, harassing, threatening, physically hurting, or causing any other form of abuse.”

¶4        One morning in July 2020, Brother’s phone received three calls between 4:57 a.m. and 4:58 a.m. from an unrecognized number. At the time of the first call, Ex-Wife and Brother “were, of course, sleeping.” As they awoke, they thought that maybe someone was calling for help related to a wedding they were to attend that day. When Ex-Wife answered the third call, she recognized Fowers’s voice saying, “You and that f***ing whore have it coming.”

¶5        Ex-Wife reported the calls to authorities, and Fowers was charged with one third-degree felony count of violation of a protective order with a domestic violence enhancement.

¶6        The district court held a preliminary hearing on the charge. The State presented evidence that Fowers had been served with the protective order. In addition to Ex-Wife, who testified about the phone calls, the deputy who received Ex-Wife’s report testified that he had checked the number from which the calls had been made against local records and found that the number was attached to Fowers. The deputy also said that he called the number and that, when he asked to speak to Fowers, the person who answered identified himself as Fowers. Additionally, the court accepted into evidence records of three prior convictions of Fowers’s for violating this protective order and a previous protective order because those convictions were “relevant to establish under evidence [r]ule 404 both knowledge by the defendant and intention.”

¶7        After the State presented its case, the court found “that the [S]tate ha[d] not met its burden.” The court explained:

[A]lthough the direct and circumstantial evidence establishes that Mr. Fowers made the call, the number that he called was his adoptive brother’s number, not the alleged victim’s number. . . .

[And] the statement itself clearly is directed at [Brother], not at [Ex-Wife]. He say[s] “you and that f’ing whore,” meaning that he’s directing his comment toward [Brother] and not [Ex-Wife] . . . . [W]hat is glaringly missing from the record here is any statement by Mr. Fowers to [Brother] to direct the comment to the alleged victim. Therefore, there is no evidence in the record to establish that Mr. Fowers intentionally violated this order by intentionally communicating either directly or indirectly to [Ex-Wife].

Based on those findings, I find that the [S]tate has not—even drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the [S]tate— . . . establish[ed] sufficient evidence[,] and I decline to bind the charge over.

The court dismissed the charge with prejudice, and the State now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶8        The State contends that it presented evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers violated the protective order and that the district court therefore erred by not binding Fowers over. In essence, the State argues that the court applied the wrong legal standard by not viewing the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from it in favor of the prosecution. A district court’s “decision to bind over a criminal defendant for trial presents a mixed question of law and fact and requires the application of the appropriate bindover standard to the underlying factual findings. As a result, in reviewing a bindover decision, an appellate court should afford the decision limited deference.” In re I.R.C., 2010 UT 41, ¶ 12, 232 P.3d 1040 (cleaned up). “Applying the wrong legal standard . . . will always exceed whatever limited discretion the [court] has in the bindover decision.” State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 7, 289 P.3d 444.

ANALYSIS

¶9        Our supreme court has explained that the evidentiary threshold for bindover is a low bar:

Although the guarantee of a preliminary hearing is fundamental, the evidentiary threshold at such hearing is relatively low. As we have emphasized, a showing of “probable cause” entails only the presentation of evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the defendant committed the charged crime. . . . To justify binding a defendant over for trial, the prosecution need not present evidence capable of supporting a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor is the prosecution required to eliminate alternative inferences that could be drawn from the evidence in favor of the defense. All that is required is reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to sustain each element of the crime(s) in question.

State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444 (cleaned up). Here, the State needed to present “evidence sufficient to support a reasonable belief” that Fowers violated the protective order, id. (cleaned up), and the court was required to “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and . . . draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution,” State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10, 20 P.3d 300 (cleaned up).

¶10 A person commits the crime of violation of a protective order if the person “(a) is the respondent or defendant subject to a protective order . . . and (b) intentionally or knowingly violates that order after having been properly served” with it. Utah Code § 76-5-108(2). A person acts intentionally “when it is his conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct.” Id. § 76-2-103(1). And a person acts knowingly “when he is aware of the nature of his conduct or the existing circumstances.” Id. § 76-2-103(2).

¶11 There is no dispute that Fowers was subject to the protective order at issue, and the State showed that Fowers was served with that protective order. Thus, the only issue before us is whether the State offered evidence supporting a reasonable belief that Fowers intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order. On this point, the State first argues that it put on evidence sufficient to establish probable cause that Fowers violated the No Contact Order portion of the protective order by “intentionally or knowingly contact[ing] Ex-Wife at least indirectly” because “[i]t was reasonable to infer that Fowers knew or intended that his contact and [message] . . . would be relayed to Ex-Wife.” The State then argues that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can also be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence in violation of the Personal Conduct Order portion of the protective order. We agree with each of the State’s arguments.[2]

¶12      The State put on evidence establishing probable cause that Fowers intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife at least indirectly. In State v. Fouse, 2014 UT App 29, 319 P.3d 778, cert. denied, 329 P.3d 36 (Utah 2014), this court affirmed a conviction for violation of a protective order where the defendant mailed envelopes to the victim’s sisters rather than to the victim, his estranged wife. Id. ¶¶ 4–7, 43. The victim was living with one of the sisters, and the other sister lived in the apartment next door. Id. ¶ 3. While some of the letters in the envelopes were addressed to the victim, others contained statements such as, “Please hold onto this. . . . [E]ven though I can’t send nor talk to my wife or kids[,] . . . writing sure does help.” Id. ¶ 4. Nonetheless, we reasoned that a factfinder “could readily infer that communication directed to or dealing with one’s ex-spouse, and sent to the ex-spouse’s siblings, will routinely and predictably be conveyed by the siblings to their family member.” Id. ¶ 40. And we noted, “Such an inference is particularly sound in this case, given the jury’s awareness that [the victim] and her sisters were close—in both senses of that term.” Id.

¶13 The same reasoning applies here. A factfinder could readily infer that calls Fowers placed to Brother or statements Fowers made to him would “routinely and predictably be conveyed” to Ex-Wife, Brother’s spouse, especially where a factfinder could reasonably infer that Brother and Ex-Wife were “close” “in both senses of that term.” Id. Indeed, a factfinder could infer that Fowers’s decision to call Brother just before 5:00 a.m.— a time when spouses could reasonably be assumed to be together—manifested his intent to catch Brother and Ex-Wife together. Therefore, we have no trouble concluding that the State’s evidence was sufficient to support a reasonable belief that Fowers, by calling Brother’s phone when he did, intentionally or knowingly contacted Ex-Wife directly or indirectly. Fowers did not need to explicitly direct Brother to communicate his message to Ex-Wife, and the court erred in suggesting as much.

¶14 The State also asserts that Fowers’s statement “You and that f***ing whore have it coming” can be reasonably interpreted as a threat of violence. We agree. In State v. Spainhower, 1999 UT App 280, 988 P.2d 452, this court recognized that the admittedly “vague and indirect” statement, “‘I’m going to get you,’ surely may connote a threat of bodily injury” because “among the many dictionary definitions of the verb ‘get’ are: ‘to bring to retribution, take vengeance on, KILL’ and ‘to strike with force, HIT.’” Id. ¶¶ 6– 7 (cleaned up). Likewise, the words at issue here, though perhaps similarly vague and indirect, could carry either a violent or a nonviolent meaning and must be interpreted by the factfinder in light of “the inferences to be drawn from the context in which the words were spoken.” Id. ¶ 7. And again, at the preliminary hearing stage, a court must “view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the prosecution.” Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 10 (cleaned up). Accordingly, at this stage, the court should have interpreted Fowers’s words to be capable of conveying, in context, a threat of violence.

CONCLUSION

¶15 The protective order’s No Contact Order forbade Fowers from contacting, phoning, mailing, e-mailing, or communicating in any way with Ex-Wife, either directly or indirectly. Its Personal Conduct Order forbade him from threatening violence against Ex-Wife. Plainly there is “reasonably believable evidence—as opposed to speculation—sufficient to” show that Fowers violated one or both of these provisions. State v. Ramirez, 2012 UT 59, ¶ 9, 289 P.3d 444. By not viewing the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the State—and instead requiring a statement by Fowers to Brother to direct the comment at issue to Ex-Wife—the district court applied the wrong legal standard and exceeded “whatever limited discretion” it had in the bindover decision. Id. ¶ 7. We therefore reverse and remand this matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] Fowers asserts that the State did not preserve “the arguments” it now makes on appeal because the prosecutor “did not raise [them] in a way that gave the district court the opportunity . . . to address [them].” “An issue is preserved by presenting it to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on that issue.” Vierig v. Therriault, 2023 UT App 67, ¶ 43, 532 P.3d 568 (cleaned up); see id. ¶ 44 (“Of note, issues must be preserved, not arguments for or against a particular ruling on an issue raised below. By contrast, new arguments, when brought under a properly preserved issue or theory, do not require an exception to preservation.” (cleaned up)).

Fowers is mistaken when he says that the State did not meet this preservation standard here. At the close of the preliminary hearing, the State referenced “paragraph 1 and 2 of the protective order”; identified those paragraphs as the Personal Conduct Order and No Contact Order respectively; and noted that they prohibited Fowers from “threatening [Ex-Wife] in any way” and from “communicating in any way with [Ex-Wife] either directly or indirectly.” The State then highlighted the evidence that Fowers “called the husband of [Ex-Wife] in the early morning hours when they would presumably be together and made a statement against her to [her] then husband,” which is the same evidence that the State emphasizes here. By presenting evidence and arguing below for bindover based on an alleged violation of both the Personal Conduct Order and the No Contact Order, the State gave the district court an opportunity to rule on the same questions we are now asked to rule on. So regardless of whether those questions are characterized as arguments or issues—and we express no opinion as to the proper characterization here— Fowers’s preservation argument fails.

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2023 UT App 57 – State v. Schroeder

2023 UT App 57 – State v. Schroeder

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

MICHAEL SCHROEDER,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20190339-CA[1]

Filed May 25, 2023

Fifth District Court, Cedar City Department

The Honorable Troy A. Little

No. 191500104

Trevor J. Lee, Attorney for Appellant

Shane Klenk, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE GREGORY K. ORME authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and

SENIOR JUDGE KATE APPLEBY concurred.[2]

ORME, Judge:

¶1        Following a consolidated bench trial, the court found Michael Schroeder guilty on three charges of protective order violations and one charge of criminal stalking, all class A misdemeanors. Schroeder now appeals, primarily contending that there was insufficient evidence to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on the convictions still at issue in this appeal.[3]

¶2        We conclude that Schroeder’s convictions for violations of a protective order are supported by sufficient evidence and affirm those convictions. But we conclude that Schroeder’s conviction for stalking is against the clear weight of the evidence developed at trial in support of that charge and therefore reverse that conviction.

BACKGROUND[4]

¶3        After Michael Schroeder and Samantha[5] ended their romantic relationship in 2018, Samantha sought a protective order against Schroeder. On August 13, 2018, Utah’s Fifth District Court held a protective order hearing. Because Schroeder was present and because he did not object to the protective order becoming permanent, the court signed and served the Protective Order, which required Schroeder to refrain from contacting Samantha, to stay at least 1,000 feet from her, and to stay away from her home.

September 23 Protective Order Charge

¶4        During the bench trial, Samantha, her friend, a police officer, and Schroeder each testified about an event that took place on September 23, 2018. Schroeder testified that on that day, he drove his truck through the city where he and Samantha lived and inadvertently turned onto Samantha’s street. After turning onto the street, he suddenly recognized where he was and further realized that if he maintained his course, he would ultimately pass Samantha’s home. He also recognized that driving past her home may violate the Protective Order, but he was not certain. Although he contemplated turning around to avoid passing Samantha’s home, he testified that he chose to continue driving down her street.

¶5        When Schroeder approached Samantha’s home, Samantha was sitting outside with a friend. She and her friend testified that they saw the truck approaching and recognized the truck as belonging to Schroeder. Samantha testified that she saw the truck slow down to almost a stop in front of her home. She was able to identify Schroeder as the driver of the truck through the truck’s open window. Samantha further testified that Schroeder stared at her and made “complete eye contact” with her before driving off. Samantha estimated that she was “maybe 20 feet” from where Schroeder drove past. Her friend testified that he too had been able to identify Schroeder through the truck’s open window. The friend further corroborated Samantha’s testimony that when Schroeder passed Samantha’s home, he was “maybe 20” or “25 feet” from their position and that Schroeder had slowed down to a stop and stared at them for “a few seconds” before driving off.

¶6        Samantha called the police and reported what had happened. An officer arrived and spoke with Samantha and her friend, then contacted Schroeder and met with him at his residence. Schroeder explained that he had made a wrong turn onto Samantha’s street, thought about turning around, made the decision not to, and then proceeded to drive past Samantha’s home. Schroeder also told the officer that he did not know the conditions of the Protective Order.

¶7        Soon after this event, the State filed an Information and Affidavit of Probable Cause against Schroeder, charging him with a protective order violation for coming within 1,000 feet of Samantha.

January 7 Protective Order Violation Charge and Stalking Charge

¶8        During the bench trial, Samantha and Schroeder also testified regarding an event that took place on the morning of January 7, 2019. Samantha testified that she was with her dog in front of her home when she heard a diesel truck approaching the cross street at the end of the block, three houses away. The distinctive sound of a diesel engine caused her to look up, and she saw Schroeder’s truck slowly driving by on the cross street. Samantha recounted that she made eye contact with Schroeder and shook her head at him before he drove off. When she went back inside her home, she again called the police and reported what happened. Samantha stated that she is “really . . . not good” with estimating distances, but she estimated she was “maybe 35 feet” from where she saw Schroeder. Schroeder denied having any knowledge of this incident and suggested that Samantha might have seen “some other gray truck” and confused it with his truck.

¶9        Following this incident, the State filed an Information and Probable Cause Statement against Schroeder, charging him with a violation of the Protective Order’s prohibition on coming within 1,000 feet of Samantha and also charging him with criminal stalking. The State predicated the stalking charge on events specified in the charging documents, discussed in more detail below.

Consolidated Trial

¶10      All cases and charges addressed in this appeal came before the trial court in a consolidated bench trial on April 4, 2019. In its case addressing the September 23 protective order violation, the State called Samantha, her friend, and the officer as witnesses. They testified as outlined above, and Schroeder testified in his defense but did not call other witnesses or present any other evidence. Following the trial, the court expressly found all the State’s witnesses to be credible. The court found that Schroeder had been properly served the Protective Order because he was present when the Protective Order was issued and did not object to its issuance. The court further found that because Schroeder recognized that he was driving down Samantha’s street and chose not to alter his course, he intentionally violated the Protective Order. Based on those findings, the trial court found Schroeder guilty of the protective order violation that occurred on September 23, 2018.

¶11      With respect to the January 7 protective order violation, the court found that the State presented sufficient evidence that Schroeder drove by on the adjacent street—which it found to be less than 1,000 feet away from Samantha—and that, while passing, Schroeder slowed down enough to stare at Samantha and for Samantha to identify him and shake her head at him. The court acknowledged that if Schroeder had just driven down the adjacent street and neither slowed down nor stared at Samantha, this likely would have been insufficient to support a protective order violation. But because he was driving down a street close to where he knew Samantha’s home to be and had slowed and stared at her while he passed, his actions were sufficient to amount to a violation of the Protective Order.

¶12 Regarding the stalking charge, the State specified the following three events in the Probable Cause Statement as the basis for the charge: (1) an alleged incident on January 6, 2019, at a local smoke shop; (2) the January 7 protective order violation; and (3) an alleged drive-by incident that occurred a few hours after the January 7 protective order violation. At trial, while the State presented evidence of the January 7 protective order violation, the State did not present any evidence of the other two events specified in the charging documents.

¶13      After both parties rested and presented closing arguments, the court determined that the September 23 and January 7 acts “were clearly course of conduct acts” that could and did cause Samantha “emotional distress and fear.” Thus, contrary to the State’s theory set out in the charging documents and not developed at trial, the court combined the September 23 and January 7 episodes to establish the proscribed course of conduct under the stalking statute.

¶14 Schroeder was convicted on all counts. This appeal followed.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶15 Schroeder argues that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “Unlike challenges to a jury verdict, a defendant need not file a separate motion or make a separate objection to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the court’s factual findings in a bench trial.” State v. Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9, 437 P.3d 501, cert. denied, 437 P.3d 1252 (Utah 2019). “[W]e review a claim of insufficient evidence at a bench trial for clear error,” State v. Ayala, 2022 UT App 1, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 755, meaning we “must sustain the district court’s judgment unless it is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made,” Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9 (quotation simplified)In other words, “before we can uphold a conviction it must be supported by a quantum of evidence concerning each element of the crime as charged from which the factfinder may base its conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Spanish Fork City v. Bryan, 1999 UT App 61, ¶ 5, 975 P.2d 501 (emphasis added) (quotation otherwise simplified).

ANALYSIS

  1. Protective Order Violations

¶16      Schroeder asks us to conclude that the trial court erred in finding him guilty of the September 23, 2018 and the January 7, 2019 protective order violations. He contends that there was insufficient evidence from which the court could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. See generally State v. Austin, 2007 UT 55, ¶ 6, 165 P.3d 1191. We address each of the court’s rulings in turn.

  1. September 23 Protective Order Violation

¶17 Schroeder contends that the State did not produce sufficient evidence regarding Schroeder’s mental state when he drove past Samantha and her friend in front of Samantha’s home. As outlined by our Supreme Court, “when reviewing a bench trial for sufficiency of the evidence, we must sustain the trial court’s judgment unless it is against the clear weight of the evidence, or if we otherwise reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Gordon, 2004 UT 2, ¶ 5, 84 P.3d 1167 (quotation simplified). “An example of an obvious and fundamental insufficiency is the case in which the State presents no evidence to support an essential element of a criminal charge.” State v. Prater, 2017 UT 13, ¶ 28, 392 P.3d 398 (quotation simplified).

¶18      It is a violation of a protective order and “a class A misdemeanor,” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-108(3) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022), when a defendant “intentionally or knowingly violates [an] order after having been properly served or having been present, in person or through court video conferencing, when the order was issued,” id. § 76-5-108(2)(b). Schroeder concedes that he was properly served with the Protective Order on August 13, 2018, and was aware of its existence. Therefore, what remains for us to decide is whether the State adduced sufficient evidence that Schroeder was aware of the Protective Order and that he “intentionally or knowingly” violated it. See id. In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we are mindful that “credibility is an issue for the trier of fact.” Zappe v. Bullock, 2014 UT App 250, ¶ 8, 338 P.3d 242 (quotation simplified).

¶19      At trial, Schroeder conceded that he intentionally drove his truck past Samantha’s home after deciding not to turn around so as to avoid doing so. He recounted, “As soon as I turned on the road and realized what was going on, like I was going to flip around and then just kept on going through.” He also acknowledged that he came within 1,000 feet of Samantha’s home. Accordingly, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction. We further conclude that the trial court’s findings were not against the clear weight of the evidence and affirm Schroeder’s conviction regarding the September 23 protective order violation.

  1. January 7 Protective Order Violation

¶20 Schroeder next contends that the State did not provide sufficient evidence on which the trial court could determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he slowed down and stared at Samantha as he drove by on the cross street three houses away from her home.

¶21      At trial, the court appropriately recognized that simply driving down a cross street near Samantha’s home would “not necessarily be a violation” of the Protective Order. But the court found that Schroeder did not simply drive down the cross street, minding his own business. Instead, based on Samantha’s testimony, which the court found to be credible, the court found that Schroeder slowed and stared at Samantha as he drove past. Samantha’s testimony included her estimation, apparently found reasonable by the trial court, that she was less than 1,000 feet from the cross street when Schroeder slowed and stared at her.

¶22 Therefore, there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction, and the trial court’s findings were not against the clear weight of the evidence. Accordingly, we also affirm Schroeder’s conviction regarding the January 7 protective order violation.

  1. Stalking Conviction

¶23 Schroeder contends that the evidence supporting his stalking conviction was insufficient to establish the necessary course of conduct as charged by the State and that his conviction was therefore against the clear weight of the evidence.[6] We agree.

¶24      “Article I, section 12 of the Utah Constitution provides that every criminal defendant has a right to know ‘the nature and cause of the accusation.’” State v. Burnett, 712 P.2d 260, 262 (Utah 1985) (quoting Utah Const. art. I, § 12). “This entitles the accused to be charged with a specific crime, so that he can know the particulars of the alleged wrongful conduct and can adequately prepare his defense.” Id. Additionally, rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that “[a] prosecution may be commenced by filing an information,” Utah R. Crim. P. 4(a), which must contain “the name given to the offense by statute or ordinance, or stating in concise terms the definition of the offense sufficient to give the defendant notice of the charge,” id. R. 4(b)(2). And an information charging a felony or a class A misdemeanor must include “a statement of facts sufficient to support probable cause for the charged offense or offenses.” Id. R. 4(c)(1). Our Supreme Court has stated that “in a criminal proceeding . . . [the accused] is entitled to be charged with a specific crime so that he may know the nature and cause of the accusation against him” and that “the State must prove substantially as charged the offense it relies upon for conviction.” State v. Taylor, 378 P.2d 352, 353 (Utah 1963) (quotation simplified). This did not happen here with respect to the stalking charge.

¶25      The charging documents concerning the stalking charge alleged, in contemplation of section 76-5-106.5(2) of the Utah Code, as follows:

[Schroeder], on or about January 07, 2019, in Iron County, State of Utah, did (a) intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at [Samantha] and knew or should have known that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person: (i) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (ii) to suffer other emotional distress[.]

¶26 Under section 76-5-106.5(2), an actor commits the offense of stalking when the actor “intentionally or knowingly . . . engages in a course of conduct” that “would cause a reasonable person . . . to fear for the individual’s safety” or “to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2022). The statute also explains that a course of conduct comprises “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific individual,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(i), and further defines emotional distress as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required,” id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a)(ii)(A).

¶27 The Probable Cause Statement indicated that the stalking charge in this case was based on a course of conduct consisting of an event occurring “[oin or about January 6, 2019,” an event occurring the “following morning on January 7, 2019, between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.,” and an event occurring “[liater that morning” on January 7, 2019. The charging documents concerning the stalking offense made no mention of the September 23 incident.

¶28      At trial, the State presented evidence only of the January 7 event. The State did not present any evidence addressing either of the other two events specified in the charging documents as establishing the requisite course of conduct for stalking. Accordingly, Schroeder had no reason to introduce controverting evidence when presenting his defense.

¶29      Following closing arguments, the trial court made findings of fact and entered its ruling. The court found Schroeder guilty of stalking based on its finding that the January 7 protective order violation and the September 23 protective order violation “were clearly course of conduct acts.”

¶30 Schroeder does not challenge the court’s finding that the January 7 protective order violation, included in the charging documents, could be a qualifying act to partially establish a stalking course of conduct. And the State presented sufficient evidence of its occurrence at trial. See supra Part I.B. But the State did not produce evidence concerning the other two incidents referred to in the Probable Cause Statement, and it never argued that the September 23 incident was relevant to the stalking charge, nor did it seek to amend the charging documents to incorporate that theory. Thus, by the end of trial, the State had established only one of the two or more incidents required to prove the stalking offense it charged. Because evidence is necessarily insufficient when the State fails to establish “an essential element of a criminal charge,” State v. Ayala, 2022 UT App 1, ¶ 15, 504 P.3d 755 (quotation simplified), we reverse Schroeder’s conviction for stalking.[7]

CONCLUSION

¶31      The trial court’s judgments were not against the clear weight of the evidence regarding Schroeder’s two convictions for the protective order violations. Therefore, we affirm Schroeder’s convictions regarding the September 23 protective order violation and the January 7 protective order violation. But because the State did not present evidence of any act specified in the relevant charging documents as constituting stalking, apart from the January 7 protective order violation, and because stalking is predicated on a course of conduct comprising two or more acts, the evidence was necessarily insufficient. Therefore, Schroeder’s stalking conviction was against the clear weight of the evidence, and we reverse that conviction.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

 

[1] This case is the consolidated appeal of cases 20190339-CA, 20190507-CA, and 20190508-CA.

[2] Senior Judge Kate Appleby sat by special assignment as authorized by law. See generally Utah R. Jud. Admin. 11-201(7).

[3] During the pendency of this appeal, Schroeder filed a motion for remand under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel he asserted in connection with his conviction for a protective order violation that was alleged to have occurred on January 26, 2019. We granted that motion. In March 2022, following a hearing on Schroeder’s rule 23B motion, the trial court granted the parties’ Stipulated Motion to Dismiss Charge with Prejudice. By so doing, the court dismissed the case concerning Schroeder’s January 26 protective order violation. For that reason, we do not discuss the events surrounding that charge, which is no longer at issue in this appeal.

[4] Following a bench trial, “we recite the facts from the record in the light most favorable to the findings of the trial court and present conflicting evidence only as necessary to understand issues raised on appeal.” State v. Cowlishaw, 2017 UT App 181, ¶ 2, 405 P.3d 885 (quotation simplified).

[5] A pseudonym.

[6] As previously noted, “a defendant need not file a separate motion or make a separate objection to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the court’s factual findings in a bench trial.” State v. Holland, 2018 UT App 203, ¶ 9, 437 P.3d 501, cert. denied, 437 P.3d 1252 (Utah 2019). When findings of fact are made in actions tried by the court without a jury, the question of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the findings may thereafter be raised on appeal regardless of whether the party raising the question has made an objection to such findings via a motion or otherwise. See State v. Jok, 2021 UT 35, ¶ 18, 493 P.3d 665 (noting that “a sufficiency of the evidence claim is effectively preserved by the nature of a bench trial and does not require making a specific motion”).

[7] Schroeder additionally argues that the trial court’s sua sponte reconstruction of the stalking charge, following trial, in which it embraced a theory of stalking not charged, was at odds with the variance doctrine. The variance doctrine prevents the State from introducing evidence at trial that varies from the charging documents where the variance would prejudice a defendant’s case. See State v. Fulton, 742 P.2d 1208, 1215 (Utah 1987). While we premise our affirmance on the more straightforward rationale that there was insufficient evidence to establish the stalking offense as charged by the State, we recognize that our reversal of that conviction also advances the salutary purposes served by the variance doctrine.

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Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33 – civil stalking injunction

Noel v. James – 2022 UT App 33

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

MICHAEL EARL NOEL,

Appellee,

v.

WILLIAM THOMAS JAMES,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200565-CA

Filed March 10, 2022

Sixth District Court, Kanab Department

The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley

No. 190600053

William Thomas James, Appellant Pro Se

Frank D. Mylar, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

HAGEN, Judge:

¶1        To obtain a civil stalking injunction, a petitioner must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the alleged stalker’s “course of conduct . . . would cause a reasonable person: (a) to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or (b) to suffer other emotional distress.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021); see id. §§ 78B­7-102(21), -701(1), -701(5). In this case, the district court granted a stalking injunction against Appellant William James, but it made no finding as to whether James’s course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Appellee Michael Noel’s position to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the basis for the injunction is not apparent in the record, we vacate the injunction and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2        Noel sought a stalking injunction after he and James were kicked out of a Kanab City Council meeting. Noel is an experienced public official who previously served as a state legislator for sixteen years and now serves as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District. James is a member of a local conservancy group. Both had attended the meeting to give public comment on a controversial permitting issue.

¶3        Noel “got up and got in line” once the comment period opened. James then “got up from the corner” and joined Noel in line. As Noel later testified, “[James] came right at me in kind of a burly manner . . . requiring me to move over for him to get by in an intimidating way. . . . I’m not saying I was fearful, but he came at me and forced me” to move aside. “If I wouldn’t have moved, he would have banged into me.”

¶4        While waiting in line, Noel decided he wanted to be the last person to address the council. Accordingly, he left his place in line and moved to the back. James, however, “wanted to prevent [Noel] from having the last word on [him]”—so he, too, gave up his spot and moved to the back of the line. Noel eventually gave up waiting in line altogether. But when he turned to leave, James stood in his way “to stop [Noel] from getting behind” him once again. And so Noel and James “jockeyed” for a few moments, with Noel unable to get past James and James unwilling to let Noel through. Noel testified, I wanted him to get out of the way, and he was blocking me, and it did anger me to do that. But I was also wondering if there was going to be a confrontation here. I was actually fearful that he might, you know, . . . take a shot at me.

¶5        Noel called James “a worthless piece of garbage.” James, in turn, shouted to the audience, relaying what Noel had just called him. At this point, law enforcement intervened and asked both men to leave the meeting. Noel went home, and James was arrested after he refused to comply. At the encouragement of the chief of police, Noel later petitioned for a civil stalking injunction against James.

¶6        The district court held a full-day evidentiary hearing on the petition. At the hearing, James sought to admit videos of both the city council meeting and a chamber of commerce meeting earlier that day through a witness who had attended both meetings. The videos had not been previously disclosed.

¶7        When the issue first arose, the court and counsel for both parties were under the impression that there were only two videos—one of the chamber of commerce meeting recorded by the witness herself and one of the city council meeting recorded by a videographer hired by the conservancy group. Noel stipulated to the admission of the first video, but he objected to the second video because the videographer was not present to lay foundation. Specifically, Noel’s counsel explained, “If there’s a woman here [who] says she videoed this on her camera, and it accurately depicts what she videoed on her camera, and she was there at the meeting, and she’s subject to cross-examination, and she made the video, I think that that’s proper. But the other one I don’t.”

¶8        But when the witness was called to testify, she explained that there were actually three videos: one video from each of the two meetings that she recorded with her personal cell phone, and a third video from the city council meeting recorded by the videographer. At that point, Noel’s counsel objected to the admission of all three videos because they had not been disclosed and he was “surprised” that they were being offered as evidence. James’s counsel did not dispute that the videos had not been disclosed in advance but claimed that, when the matter was discussed earlier, Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded.” In response, Noel’s counsel argued that he had merely stipulated to the chamber of commerce video: “That’s all we were discussing at the time.” The court agreed with Noel’s counsel that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. And because Noel “didn’t make the objection before about not having [the chamber of commerce video] in advance,” the court held him to that stipulation. The court received the chamber of commerce video into evidence per the stipulation, but excluded the other two based on the objection.

¶9        At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court determined that James had engaged in a course of conduct directed at Noel, as required under the civil stalking statute. The court found that the course of conduct consisted of two component acts, each committed at the city council meeting: (1) when James approached Noel “in a kind of burly manner,” and (2) when James “blocked [Noel] from going back to his seat.” The court did not make an express finding that James’s conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Nonetheless, the court granted the requested stalking injunction.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10 James now appeals, contending that the district court erred in imposing a civil stalking injunction against him.[2] James primarily argues that his course of conduct would not have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Although the question of whether “a reasonable person would suffer fear or emotional distress” under the circumstances “is a question of fact that we review for clear error, we review the district court’s interpretation [and application] of the underlying legal standard for correctness.” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 16, 491 P.3d 835; see also Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 728 (“The proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness, affording no deference to the district court’s legal conclusion.” (cleaned up)).

¶11 James also challenges the district court’s decision to exclude video evidence of the city council meeting. Specifically, he contends that the “videos met the [parties’] stipulation for new video evidence” and that, therefore, the district court erred by excluding them. “The scope of a stipulation presents a question of fact, which we review for clear error.” Fuller v. Bohne, 2017 UT App 28, ¶ 9, 392 P.3d 898 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Civil Stalking Injunction

¶12 To obtain a civil stalking injunction, the petitioner “must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that ‘an offense of stalking has occurred.’” Ragsdale v. Fishler, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25, 491 P.3d 835 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(7) (LexisNexis 2017)).[3] “The crime of stalking consists of two elements. First, a person must ‘intentionally or knowingly engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person.’” Id. (cleaned up) (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2) (LexisNexis 2017)). By statute, a “‘[c]ourse of conduct’ means two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person.” Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021) (listing several examples of qualifying acts). Second, the respondent “must ‘know or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person’ to ‘fear for the person’s own safety’ or ‘suffer other emotional distress.’” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 25 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 76-5­106.5(2)). A “reasonable person” is statutorily defined as “a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances.” § 76-5­106.5(1)(d).

¶13      Although the district court recited both elements, it made findings on the first element only. It identified an intentional course of conduct consisting of two acts: approaching Noel in a “burly manner” and later blocking Noel from returning to his seat. But the court did not make a factual finding on the second element, that is, whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. “When confronted with questions of fact, this court will only rule as a matter of law if the evidence is so clear and persuasive that all reasonable minds would find one way.” See Baird v. Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 29, 322 P.3d 728 (cleaned up). Otherwise, “remand is appropriate” to allow the district court to make that determination. See id.

¶14      Noel acknowledges that the district court never addressed the second element on the record, but he argues that James failed to preserve the issue for appeal. We disagree. To issue a stalking injunction, “the district court necessarily had to consider whether [Noel] had established each element of a stalking offense.” See id. ¶ 20. Thus, the court had an opportunity to rule on whether the statutory elements were met, and that issue is “adequately preserved” for appeal. See id. In any event, James specifically argued to the court that “[t]his [was] not a situation where a reasonable person . . . in [Noel’s] position” would have been “afraid of physical harm or . . . in emotional distress.” And he moved “essentially for a directed verdict” on that basis. Therefore, we are confident that James presented this issue “to the district court in such a way that the court ha[d] an opportunity to rule on it.” See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 15, 416 P.3d 443 (cleaned up).

¶15      Alternatively, Noel contends that we can affirm on appeal because the district court “had evidence to determine that James acted in a threatening manner that would have made a reasonable person fearful or suffer some emotional distress over the two encounters.” When the district court does “not explicitly make a necessary finding,” we may still affirm “if the evidence and statements contained in the record make the evidentiary basis for this finding sufficiently clear.” See Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 8, 340 P.3d 79 (cleaned up); see also State v. Bingham, 2015 UT App 103, ¶¶ 28–29, 348 P.3d 730 (explaining that a reviewing court may “assume that the [district] court found the facts in accord with its decision,” unless “the ambiguity of the facts makes this assumption unreasonable” (cleaned up)). But here, the evidentiary basis for finding that Noel satisfied the second element is not sufficiently clear from this record.

¶16 To determine whether the petitioner has met the second element required for a civil stalking injunction, we apply “an individualized objective standard.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 26. Under this standard, the “subjective effect of the respondent’s conduct on the petitioner is irrelevant.” Ragsdale, 2021 UT 29, ¶ 45. Instead, the relevant question is whether the conduct would have caused fear or emotional distress to “a reasonable person in the petitioner’s circumstances.” Id. (quoting Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 25). “In applying this standard, courts must consider the entire context surrounding a respondent’s conduct” and “must consider the conduct cumulatively, accounting for the facts and circumstances of the individual case.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶17      Our supreme court has suggested a non-exhaustive list of factors that may be relevant to this assessment. Those factors include “the victim’s background, the victim’s knowledge of and relationship with the defendant, any history of abuse between the parties, the location of the alleged stalking and its proximity to the victim’s children, if any, and the cumulative effect of defendant’s repetitive conduct.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (cleaned up). “Furthermore, under an individualized objective standard, a court may consider whether the defendant had knowledge of a particular vulnerability of the victim and then acted with full knowledge of the victim’s vulnerability.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶18 Under this standard, it is far from obvious that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have feared for his safety or suffered emotional distress, given the context in which James’s conduct took place. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(2)(a)–(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2021). The encounter occurred in a public place—a city council meeting—and in full view of a room packed with witnesses. Law enforcement officers were stationed at the meeting and ready to intervene. And Noel is an experienced public official accustomed to dealing with members of the public. See Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 27 (indicating that the individualized objective standard considers “the victim’s background”). Although Noel testified that James was “a loose cannon” and “a different guy than [Noel had] dealt with in [his] years of public service,” the district court made no finding that a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances would have found James particularly threatening. And even though James was ultimately arrested, his arrest was based not on his conduct toward Noel, but on his refusal to comply when law enforcement ordered both men to leave the meeting.

¶19 Noel argues that a reasonable person would fear for his safety under these circumstances. He suggests that the district court’s finding that James approached in a burly manner “could mean that James was acting tough or flexing his muscles or puffing his chest in a manner that would suggest physical aggression.” Perhaps it could, but we have no findings to that effect. Nor do we have a finding that such a display would cause a reasonable person to fear for his safety in the context in which it occurred—a well-attended, public meeting, with law enforcement officers standing by.

¶20 Noel also argues that the evidence supported a finding that James’s conduct would have caused “some emotional distress,” but that is not the standard. The stalking statute defines “emotional distress” as “significant mental or psychological suffering, whether or not medical or other professional treatment or counseling is required.” See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b) (emphasis added). Noel has pointed to no evidence in the record that would have clearly supported a finding that James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would cause a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to suffer “emotional distress,” as defined by statute.

¶21      If the district court applied the correct legal standard and implicitly found the second element satisfied, the evidentiary basis for that ruling is not clear on this record. Although the interaction that occurred at the city council meeting was certainly uncivil, it is not the type of conduct that would ordinarily cause a reasonable person to fear for his physical safety or experience “significant mental or psychological suffering”—at least not without other contextual facts not apparent from the record. See id.

¶22 Having heard the evidence firsthand, the district court is in an advantaged position to make factual findings as to whether Noel has proved the second element by a preponderance of the evidence. We ordinarily rely on the district court to make those kinds of assessments, because it has “personally observed the quality of the evidence, the tenor of the proceedings, and the demeanor of the parties.” Baird, 2014 UT 08, ¶ 30. “This is particularly true in a case like this one where the record consists almost entirely of evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing.” See id. Therefore, we vacate the injunction and remand for the district court to determine whether Noel has proved the second element under the legal standard explained in this opinion.

II. Scope of the Stipulation

¶23 Because we are remanding for further findings, we must also reach the question of whether the district court properly excluded video of the interaction between James and Noel at the city council meeting. James argues on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by excluding both videos of the city council meeting, because Noel had stipulated to the admission of late-disclosed videos so long as James laid sufficient foundation by calling the person who recorded each one.

¶24 But in excluding the videos of the city council meeting, the district court found that the parties’ stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video. James’s counsel asserted that Noel “had stipulated to anything that [the witness] had personally recorded,” but Noel’s counsel pointed out that, at the time of the stipulation, he was unaware of the existence of the third video and that the only thing counsel had discussed was the chamber of commerce video. The court agreed with Noel’s counsel, saying, “That’s the way I understood the stipulation.”

¶25 The district court’s finding that the stipulation was limited to the chamber of commerce video was not clearly erroneous. At the time of the stipulation, the parties were discussing only two videos. Noel stipulated to the admission of the chamber of commerce video taken by the witness and objected to the admission of the city council video taken by the videographer based on lack of foundation. His stipulation to the chamber of commerce video cannot fairly be read as a stipulation to a third video that he did not know existed.

¶26 James has not argued that the videos were timely disclosed, that the disclosure violation could be excused for good cause, or that the failure to disclose was harmless. See Utah R. Civ. P. 26(d)(4) (“If a party fails to disclose or to supplement timely a disclosure or response to discovery, that party may not use the undisclosed witness, document, or material at any hearing or trial unless the failure is harmless or the party shows good cause for the failure.”). Therefore, he has not established any basis on which to reverse the district court’s exclusion of the city council videos.

CONCLUSION

¶27 James has not established that the district court erred in excluding the late-disclosed videos of the city council meeting, but he has established that the injunction was entered without the necessary findings. Specifically, the district court made no express finding as to whether James knew or should have known that his course of conduct would have caused a reasonable person in Noel’s circumstances to fear for his safety or suffer emotional distress. Because the record does not provide a clear evidentiary basis for the court’s decision, we vacate the stalking injunction against James and remand for additional proceedings consistent with this opinion.


[1] “On appeal, when a trial court has made findings of fact to support a civil stalking injunction, we will recite the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court’s findings.” Sheeran v. Thomas, 2014 UT App 285, ¶ 2 n.1, 340 P.3d 797.

[2] James, a non-attorney, represents himself in this appeal. We hold him “to the same standard of knowledge and practice as any qualified member of the bar,” but accord him “every consideration that may reasonably be indulged.” See State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 19, 128 P.3d 1171 (cleaned up).

[3] Although the 2018 amendment of the civil stalking statute governs this case, we cite the most recent version of the civil stalking statute for convenience—unless a prior version is quoted by a different source. Regardless of the version quoted throughout this opinion, the statutory language at issue is the same.


Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Does the respondent get a copy of a restraining order?

Yes, the respondent gets one, as long as the respondent can be found so that he/she can be handed, mailed, or electronically provided with a copy. Indeed, if a respondent is not provided with a copy of the restraining order (or not deemed to have been served with a copy), it can be argued that the restraining order cannot be enforced against the respondent, or at least that the respondent cannot be punished for not complying with an order of which he/she had no notice. However, remember that there are two kinds of “notice”. Actual notice and constructive notice. With constructive notice, it is possible to be “deemed” to be on notice without having any personal possession or knowledge of the notice. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

Constructive notice legal definition of constructive notice (thefreedictionary.com) 

Actual Notice legal definition of Actual Notice (thefreedictionary.com) 

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How do I get a copy of my restraining order that I have on my ex?

How do I get a copy of my restraining order that I have on my ex? I lost the original copy.

My answer applies to how you can obtain a copy of any order (not just a restraining order) in any case in which you are involved.  

Easiest (but a potentially expensive) way: pay a lawyer a few bucks to help you obtain a copy.  

Least expensive (but a potentially time-consuming and frustrating way) way: figure it out on your own.  

How to do it on your own: 

  • Go to the courthouse (if, in the age of COVID-19, your courthouse is open to the public) and ask an employee in the court clerk’s office to help you locate your case name and number, so that you can identify your restraining order in the file. Then request a copy of the restraining order. Be prepared to pay a copying fee.  
  • If you cannot go to the courthouse or if the courthouse is not open to the public (because of COVID-19), get the phone number and/or email address for the court clerk’s office, then call and/or email to request help in obtaining a copy of your restraining order. Be prepared to pay a copying fee, even if the copy is emailed to you.  

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-get-a-copy-of-my-restraining-order-that-I-have-on-my-ex-I-lost-the-original-copy/answer/Eric-Johnson-311 

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What is a court order and its types?

Here’s the definition from Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019): 

ordern. (16c) 1. A command, direction, or instruction. See MANDATE (1). 2. A written direction or command delivered by a government official, esp. a court or judge. • The word generally embraces final decrees as well as interlocutory directions or commands. — Also termed court order; judicial order. See MANDAMUS. 

“An order is the mandate or determination of the court upon some subsidiary or collateral matter arising in an action, not disposing of the merits, but adjudicating a preliminary point or directing some step in the proceedings.” 1 Henry Campbell Black, A Treatise on the Law of Judgments § 1, at 5 (2d ed. 1902). 

“While an order may under some circumstances amount to a judgment, they must be distinguished, owing to the different consequences flowing from them, not only in the matter of enforcement and appeal but in other respects, as, for instance, the time within which proceedings to annul them must be taken. Rulings on motions are ordinarily orders rather than judgments. The class of judgments and of decrees formerly called interlocutory is included in the definition given in [modern codes] of the word ‘order.’” 1 A.C. Freeman, A Treatise of the Law of Judgments § 19, at 28 (Edward W. Tuttle ed., 5th ed. 1925). 

What kinds of orders are common in a Utah divorce action? Again, I defer to Black’s Law Dictionary: 

- enforcement order. A court’s order issued to compel a person or entity to comply with a statute, regulation, contract provision, previous court order, or other binding authority. 

- ex parte order (eks pahr-tee) (18c) An order made by the court upon the application of one party to an action without notice to the other. 

- final order. (16c) An order that is dispositive of the entire case. See final judgment under JUDGMENT (2). 

- final judgment. (18c) A court’s last action that settles the rights of the parties and disposes of all issues in controversy, except for the award of costs (and, sometimes, attorney’s fees) and enforcement of the judgment. — Also termed final appealable judgment; final decision; final decree; definitive judgment; determinative judgment; final appealable order. 

– income-withholding order (1986) A court order providing for the withholding of a person’s income by an employer, usu. to enforce a child-support order. — Abbr. IWO. — Also termed wage-withholding order; wage-assignment order; wage assignment. Cf. attachment of wages under ATTACHMENT (1). 

- interim order. (18c) 1. A temporary court decree that remains in effect for a specified time or until a specified event occurs. 2. See interlocutory order. 

- interlocutory order (in-tər-lok-yə-tor-ee) (17c) An order that relates to some intermediate matter in the case; any order other than a final order. • Most interlocutory orders are not appealable until the case is fully resolved. But by rule or statute, most jurisdictions allow some types of interlocutory orders (such as preliminary injunctions and class-certification orders) to be immediately appealed. — Also termed interlocutory decision; interim order; intermediate order. See appealable decision under DECISION (1); COLLATERAL-ORDER DOCTRINE. 

- maintenance order. See SUPPORT ORDER. 

– support order (1948) A court decree requiring a party (esp. one in a divorce or paternity proceeding) to make payments to maintain a child or spouse, including medical, dental, and educational expenses. — Also termed maintenance order. 

- foreign support order. (1948) An out-of-state support order. 

- minute order. (1918) 1. An order recorded in the minutes of the court rather than directly on a case docket. • Although practice varies, traditionally when a trial judge is sitting officially, with or without a court reporter, a clerk or deputy clerk keeps minutes. When the judge makes an oral order, the only record of that order may be in the minutes. It is therefore referred to as a minute order. — Also termed minute entry. 2. A court order not directly relating to a case, such as an order adopting a local rule of court. • In this sense, the court is not a single judge acting in an adjudicatory capacity, but a chief judge, or a group of two or more judges, acting for a court in an administrative or some other nonadjudicatory capacity. 

- modification order (1936) Family law. A post-divorce order that changes the terms of child support, custody, visitation, or alimony. • A modification order may be agreed to by the parties or may be ordered by the court. The party wishing to modify an existing order must show a material change in circumstances from the time when the order sought to be modified was entered. See CHANGE IN CIRCUMSTANCES. 

- pretrial order (1939) A court order setting out the claims and defenses to be tried, the stipulations of the parties, and the case’s procedural rules, as agreed to by the parties or mandated by the court at a pretrial conference.  

- emergency protective order. (1976) A temporary protective order granted on an expedited basis, usu. after an ex parte hearing (without notice to the other side), most commonly to provide injunctive relief from an abuser in a domestic-violence case; esp., a short-term restraining order that is issued at the request of a law-enforcement officer in response to a domestic-violence complaint from a victim who is in immediate danger. • A victim of domestic violence can obtain an EPO only through a law-enforcement officer. There is no notice requirement, but the abuser must be served with the order. The duration of an EPO varies from three to seven days, depending on state law. — Abbr. EPO. Cf. TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER. 

- permanent protective order. (1981) A protective order of indefinite duration granted after a hearing with notice to both sides; esp., a court order that prohibits an abuser from contacting or approaching the protected person for a long period, usu. years. Despite the name, permanent orders often have expiration dates set by state law. An order may also require the abuser to perform certain acts such as attending counseling or providing financial support for the protected person. — Abbr. PPO. 

– qualified domestic-relations order (1984) A state-court order or judgment that relates to alimony, child support, or some other state domestic-relations matter and that (1) recognizes or provides for an alternate payee’s right to receive all or part of any benefits due a participant under a pension, profit-sharing, or other retirement benefit plan, (2) otherwise satisfies § 414 of the Internal Revenue Code, and (3) is exempt from the ERISA rule prohibiting the assignment of plan benefits. • Among other things, the QDRO must set out certain facts, including the name and last-known mailing address of the plan participant and alternate payee, the amount or percentage of benefits going to the alternate payee, and the number of payments to which the plan applies. The benefits provided under a QDRO are treated as income to the actual recipient. IRC (26 USCA) § 414(p)(1)(A); 29 USCA § 1056(d)(3)(D)(i). — Abbr. QDRO. 

– restraining order (1876) 1. A court order prohibiting family violence; esp., an order restricting a person from harassing, threatening, and sometimes merely contacting or approaching another specified person. • This type of order is issued most commonly in cases of domestic violence. A court may grant an ex parte restraining order in a family-violence case if it is necessary to (1) achieve the government’s interest in protecting victims of family violence from further abuse, (2) ensure prompt action where there is an immediate threat of danger, and (3) provide governmental control by ensuring that judges grant such orders only where there is an immediate danger of such abuse. — Also termed protective order; order of protection; stay-away order. See ex parte motion under MOTION (1). 2. TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER. 3. A court order entered to prevent the dissipation or loss of property. 

- scheduling order. (1959) A court’s order that sets the time deadlines for different procedural actions in a case, such as amending pleadings, filing motions, and completing discovery. 

- separation order. (1882) A court order granting a married person’s request for a legal separation. See SEPARATION AGREEMENT (1). 

- show-cause order. (1925) An order directing a party to appear in court and explain why the party took (or failed to take) some action or why the court should or should not impose some sanction or grant some relief. — Abbr. SCO. — Also termed order to show cause (OSC; OTSC); rule to show cause; show-cause rule. 

- supervision order. (1938) Family law. A court’s order placing a child or young person under the supervision of a child-welfare agency or a probation officer in a case of neglect, abuse, or delinquency. 

– support order (1948) A court decree requiring a party (esp. one in a divorce or paternity proceeding) to make payments to maintain a child or spouse, including medical, dental, and educational expenses. — Also termed maintenance order. 

- foreign support order. (1948) An out-of-state support order. 

- temporary order. (1808) A court order issued during the pendency of a suit, before the final order or judgment has been entered. 

– temporary restraining order (1861) 1. A court order preserving the status quo until a litigant’s application for a preliminary or permanent injunction can be heard. • A temporary restraining order may sometimes be granted without notifying the opposing party in advance. Cf. emergency protective order under PROTECTIVE ORDER. 2. See ex parte injunction under INJUNCTION. — Abbr. TRO. — Often shortened to restraining order.  

- visitation order (1944) Family law.1. An order establishing the visiting times for a noncustodial parent with his or her child. 2. An order establishing the visiting times for a child and a person with a significant relationship to the child. • Such an order may allow for visitation between (1) a grandparent and a grandchild, (2) a child and another relative, (3) a child and a stepparent, or (4) occasionally, a child and the child’s psychological parent. — Also termed access order. 

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277  

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When a restraining order expires, is there some documentation that the respondent can get to prove the expiration?

In Utah, the answer to your question would be: Yes, in the form of the restraining order itself. The restraining order itself states that “[t]he order shall expire by its terms within such time after entry, not to exceed 14 days, as the court fixes, unless within the time so fixed the order, for good cause shown, is extended for a like period or unless the party against whom the order is directed consents that it may be extended for a longer period. (Utah Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 65A(b)(2)).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Are there laws that protect one parent from being a victim of the other parent’s continuous reporting, through the other parent’s attorney, about violations of a restraining order that are all lies?

Are there laws that protect one parent from being a victim of the other parent’s continuous reporting, through the other parent’s attorney, about violations of a restraining order that are all lies?

Are there laws that protect one parent from being a victim of the other parent’s continuous reporting, through the other parent’s attorney, about violations of a restraining order that are all lies?

Practically speaking (and in my experience), yes and no.

I’ll start with the “no” part of my answer because it’s short. I say “no” because although there are rules against frivolous, bad-faith litigation (such as litigation based on lies), these rules are shamefully under-enforced. So even if you can make a clear case for an opposing party engaging in frivolous, bad-faith litigation, in my experience courts rarely punish such behavior. It’s one of the main reasons people lose faith in the legal system when they find themselves subject to the system.

The best way to protect yourself from having a court believe the opposing party’s lies is to prove them false by objective, independently verifiable evidence that cannot be denied. So, document your words and deeds six ways from Sunday. If it’s not a close call, the opposing side’s efforts to cheat won’t make any difference.

And here’s my “yes” part of the answer: Most jurisdictions, including the jurisdiction in which I practice law (Utah), have a rule or rules that is intended to prevent frivolous litigation. One such rule in Utah is the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure rule 11 (which is almost identical to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rule 11). Utah’s rule 11 provides:

(b) Representations to court. By presenting a pleading, written motion, or other paper to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or advocating), an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,

(b)(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation;

(b)(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;

(b)(3) the allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

(b)(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.

(c) Sanctions. If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that paragraph (b) has been violated, the court may, subject to the conditions stated below, impose an appropriate sanction upon the attorneys, law firms, or parties that have violated paragraph (b) or are responsible for the violation.

There are also laws against making frivolous and bad-faith claims. Utah’s law is:

78B-5-825. Attorney fees — Award where action or defense in bad faith — Exceptions.

(1) In civil actions, the court shall award reasonable attorney fees to a prevailing party if the court determines that the action or defense to the action was without merit and not brought or asserted in good faith, except under Subsection (2).

(2) The court, in its discretion, may award no fees or limited fees against a party under Subsection (1), but only if the court:

(a) finds the party has filed an affidavit of impecuniosity in the action before the court; or

(b) the court enters in the record the reason for not awarding fees under the provisions of Subsection (1).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Are-there-laws-that-protect-one-parent-from-being-a-victim-of-the-other-parents-continuous-reporting-through-the-other-parents-attorney-about-violations-of-a-restraining-order-that-are-all-lies/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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My parents filed an order of protection against me. Is there any way I can fight this at age 17 knowing that I’ve done no wrong?

My parents filed an order of protection against me. Is there any way I can fight this at age 17 knowing that I’ve done no wrong?

Your experience may be different, but welcome to what may be an experience that causes you to lose faith in the legal system. You are significantly at your parents’ and the system’s mercy.

The likely first strike against you: given your age, you can be treated much like an adult when it comes to penalties yet denied the freedom to present your case as you wish because of your status as a minor child.

The second strike against you: courts generally do not like hearing from children in almost any law suit and go out of there way to curtail their participation. Now in fairness, in may instances this is intended to protect children and in many instances it does have that effect. In other instances, however, it serves to do nothing but muzzle a child, denying him/her the full capacity to defend himself/herself or express his/her concerns, fears, and desires. The testimony and/or arguments of children, merely on the basis of their being children, are often dismissed as not competent or credible witnesses.

The third strike is that you’re a wild, scary 17-year-old child, boiling with hormones and irresponsibility, which makes it very easy 1) not to be taken seriously; and 2) to be on the receiving end of prejudice, especially when your parents accuse you of being a danger to them.

Bottom line: to say, “Trying to go it alone as a child in court is difficult” is a ridiculously glaring understatement. The unquestionably best thing you can do for yourself is to get a skilled lawyer of your choice, if you can, to defend you within the legal system and to protect you from the vagaries of the legal system. Nothing else will 1) do you and your case more good and 2) better improve your odds of being treated fairly.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/My-parents-filed-an-order-of-protection-against-me-Is-there-any-way-I-can-fight-this-at-age-17-knowing-that-I-ve-done-no-wrong/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Does a Restraining Order Prevent Me from Communicating with the School?

Does a Restraining Order Prevent Me from Communicating with the School?

If a school age child has a restraining order against a parent prohibiting him from coming within a certain distance from the school, can they still call the school to inquire about the child if the order is silent on it?

If I were a judge and asked to analyze and answer such a question (I am a Utah divorce and family lawyer and have been in practice for 24 years), I would do so this way:

1. Does the restraining order contain any clear, express provisions prohibiting the restrained parent from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child?

2. If the answer is “no,” then I would read the entire order to determine whether in the prohibition against the parent restrained from coming onto school grounds there was any clear contextual intent to bar the restrained parent from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child. It would, in my mind, have to be extremely clear/highly suggestive that the intent was to prevent calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child before I would even consider construing the “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” to mean “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.”

3. It is extremely likely that if I were the judge construing the order, I would not try to stretch it to cover things not expressly articulated in the order itself. In my legal opinion, “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” does not come anywhere close to meaning “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.” I believe most judges would hold the same opinion.

4. All that stated, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, don’t be surprised if you have a judge who does construe “prohibited from coming within a certain distance from the school” to mean also “restrained from calling or otherwise communicating with the school to inquire about the child.” Why? Because in my experience and opinion, there are certain judges who will indulge in this kind of expansive construction and interpretation not because they actually believe what they are doing is correct, but because they reckon that by construing the order to be as restrictive and limiting for you as possible, they will prevent you from doing anything that could possibly cause the child or the child’s other parent from calling the police and/or coming back to court to complain about you. Thus, you and the case coming back in front of the court to be dealt with in the future is avoided. It’s a labor-saving device, not a correct legal construction principle.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Can I get a restraining order against a couple?

Can I get a restraining order against a couple?

In a sense, no (but you can still obtain a restraining order against both people).

A “couple” would not be something against which you can get restraining or protective order, but if both members of a couple individually commit the acts that would entitle you to restraining order, protective order, or stalking injunction, then you would apply for the order against each member of the couple because you want and need protection from both of them.

Let’s say that one spouse of a married couple is assaulting you, or attempting to assault you, or threatening to assault you. And let’s say that there is no question that the other spouse in the couple has done nothing wrong (isn’t even aware of what his/her spouse is doing wrong). In that scenario, there would be no basis for seeking a restraining order against both people. But if both of them are causing, attempting, or threatening harm, then you could certainly seek a restraining or protective order or stalking injunction against them both.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Can-I-get-a-restraining-order-against-a-couple/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

 

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Hardy v. Hardy – 2020 UT App 88 – Utah Court of Appeals – civil stalking

2020 UT App 88

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS
KAREN HARDY, Appellee,
v.
BRIAN NEIL HARDY, Appellant.

Opinion
No. 20190496-CA
Filed June 11, 2020
Fifth District Court, St. George Department

The Honorable Michael Leavitt
No. 190500106

Lewis P. Reece and Devon James Herrmann, Attorneys for Appellant
Benjamin Lusty and Stephanie Lenhart, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and KATE APPLEBY concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1 Brian Neil Hardy appeals the district court’s entry of a civil stalking injunction against him. We reverse.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Brian and his former wife, Karen Hardy,[1] had a strained relationship following their divorce. Brian believed that Karen was taking their child to a particular therapist he did not approve of, which would have been a violation of their divorce decree. To confirm his suspicions, he went to the therapist’s office at the time when he believed Karen had an appointment scheduled for their child. Brian observed Karen in her vehicle outside the therapist’s office and took two photographs to use as evidence.

¶3        Karen saw Brian’s car at the therapist’s office and filed a request for a civil stalking injunction the same day. The petition alleged a separate stalking incident in addition to the incident at the therapist’s office, but the district court determined that the other incident did not amount to stalking. Nevertheless, the court found that by both observing and photographing Karen at the therapist’s office, Brian had engaged in a course of conduct that amounted to stalking. The court found that “the addition of the photographing is a separate act, over and above observing,” because “the purpose for photographing is different than . . . the purpose for observing or monitoring something.” Additionally, the court found that the actions were directed at Karen and that Brian knew or should have known that they would cause her emotional distress. Accordingly, the court granted the civil stalking injunction. Brian now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶4      Brian raises only one issue on appeal. He asserts that the district court erred in determining that observing and photographing Karen on the day in question could be considered a “course of conduct” under the Utah Code. Whether someone has engaged in a course of conduct under the stalking statute is a question of law, which we review for correctness. Judd v. Irvine, 2015 UT App 238, ¶ 8, 360 P.3d 793 (per curiam).

ANALYSIS

¶5        Utah Code section 77-3a-101 allows for the entry of a civil stalking injunction upon a district court finding that “an offense of stalking has occurred.” Utah Code Ann. § 77-3a-101(5)(a) (LexisNexis 2017). Under Utah law, stalking occurs when a person

intentionally or knowingly engages in a course of conduct directed at a specific person and knows or should know that the course of conduct would cause a reasonable person:

(a)        to fear for the person’s own safety or the safety of a third person; or

(b)       to suffer other emotional distress.

Id. § 76-5-106.5(2) (Supp. 2019). A “course of conduct” is defined as “two or more acts directed at or toward a specific person” and can include, among other things, “acts in which the actor follows, monitors, observes, photographs, surveils, [or] threatens . . . a person.” Id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b)(i).

¶6        We agree with Brian that observing and photographing Karen at the same time and for the same purpose was not sufficient to establish a course of conduct under the stalking statute. Observing someone is generally inherent in the act of photographing them, especially in the context of the stalking statute where the photography must be knowing and directed toward a specific person.[2] See id. § 76-5-106.5(2). If we were to classify observing and photographing as separate acts in this context, it would mean that in virtually all circumstances where the other elements of the statute are met, the act of photographing would necessarily establish a course of conduct. We do not believe this is consistent with the statute’s stated intent that a course of conduct be composed of “two or more acts.” See id. § 76-5-106.5(1)(b). Further, it is inconsistent with the nature of stalking, which is inherently “an offense of repetition.”[3] See Ellison v. Stam, 2006 UT App 150, ¶ 28, 136 P.3d 1242.

¶7 We also consider the purpose of the conduct to be relevant in assessing whether two separate acts have occurred. The district court observed that “the purpose for photographing is different than . . . the purpose for observing or monitoring something.” But nothing in the facts of this case supports a finding that the observing and photographing served different purposes. Rather, they were part of a single act intended to expose Karen for allegedly violating the parties’ divorce decree by taking their child to a therapist unapproved by Brian.[4]

¶8 We also do not assign the same significance to the listing of possible acts of stalking included in the statute that Karen does. Just because observing and photographing are listed separately in the statute does not mean that they are distinct acts when they occur simultaneously and where one is inherent in the other. Indeed, many of the examples of stalking listed in the statute may overlap. For example, monitoring (“to watch, observe, or check”), observing (“to take notice [or] be attentive”), and surveilling (to keep “close watch . . . over one or more persons”) are essentially synonyms in most cases. See Monitor, Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary (1986); id. Observance; id. Surveillance. And following, like photographing, cannot be accomplished without some degree of monitoring, observing, or surveilling. Thus, the fact that a single action may be described by more than one named example in the statutory list does not mean multiple acts of stalking have occurred. Rather, the alleged actions must be distinct in time or purpose. In this case, the photographing and observing together were a single “act” and cannot constitute a course of conduct.

CONCLUSION

¶9 Because the observing and photographing constituted a single act for purposes of the stalking statute, they did not constitute a course of conduct, and the district court therefore erred in granting the stalking injunction. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s decision and vacate the stalking injunction.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

————–

[1] As is our practice in cases where both parties share a last name, we refer to the parties by their first names with no disrespect intended by the apparent informality.

[2] Karen asserts that people can be photographed “randomly, in an impromptu fashion, or coincidentally,” as well as “remotely” or automatically by surveillance cameras. But such situations would be highly unlikely to fall within the stalking statute in the first place, as it would be difficult to demonstrate that the act of photographing someone was either knowing or directed at the person if it was accomplished without observation.

[3] Karen correctly points out that in 2008, the Utah Legislature modified the definition of “course of conduct” in the stalking statute by removing the reference to “repeatedly” and changing the course-of-conduct requirement from “two or more occasions” to “two or more acts.” See Act of March 18, 2008, ch. 356, § 2, 2008 Utah Laws 2290, 2292. But we do not believe these changes are as significant as Karen argues. “Stalking, by its very nature, is an offense of repetition,” and “conduct is rendered . . . more threatening because it is repeated.” Ellison v. Stam, 2006 UT App 150, ¶ 28, 136 P.3d 1242 (emphasis added).

[4] We could conceive of a circumstance in which a single event with multiple distinct acts undertaken for different purposes or separated by some amount of time might constitute a course of conduct. For example, if Brian had followed Karen to learn where she was going and then photographed her to prove that she was engaging in inappropriate conduct, the following and photographing/observing might constitute two separate acts. But in this case, nothing indicates that the observation was distinct either in time or purpose from the photographing. The photographing and observing occurred essentially simultaneously and furthered a single purpose of proving that Karen was taking the child to therapy.

Can Being in a Zoom or WebEx Meeting Violate a Restraining Order?

Can Being in a Zoom or WebEx Meeting Violate a Restraining Order?

What’s going to happen if I have a restraining order and I get on Zoom to make a meeting or a call and that person that I have the restraining order against is in the Zoom meeting?

It depends upon what the terms of the restraining or protective order are.

If you have a restraining order that prohibits someone from communicating with you, then if that person participates in a Zoom conference in which that person communicates with you that would constitute a violation of the restraining/protective order.

The trickier question is whether it would constitute a violation of the restraining/protective order for that person to participate in a Zoom call in which there are dozens of participants and the person against whom you have the restraining/protective order clearly is attending the meeting in good faith and for any malicious purpose, is ignorant of the fact your are among the other attendees, and then communicates with the group (not with you specifically). I had this very situation arise and, thankfully, the judge agreed that because my client and I proved that he 1) was a legitimate invitee to the group meeting, 2) did not know the woman who had the restraining order against him was in the group meeting too, and 3) that his communication was with the group (not with the woman with the order specifically), that did not constitute a violation of the prohibition against communication.

If you have a restraining order that does not prohibit communication but only prohibits someone from being within a certain distance of you (say 100 yards), then if that person participates, from another city or state, in a Zoom conference with you that would not constitute a violation of the restraining/protective order.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Whats-going-to-happen-if-I-have-a-restraining-order-and-I-get-on-Zoom-to-make-a-meeting-or-a-call-and-that-person-that-I-have-the-restraining-order-against-is-in-the-Zoom-meeting/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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If someone obtains a restraining order against me, can I obtain one against him/her?

If someone put a restraining order on you only because they thought you were going to put one on them and they are the one who is stalking and harassing you, can you put one on them before anything is decided by the judge?

This happens a lot, i.e., the real perp accuses you of the very things he/she is doing and on that basis “preemptively” requests a restraining order or protective order or stalking injunction (whatever options that particular jurisdiction allows) against you before you can seek one against him/her.

Some jurisdictions, however, do not bar you from seeking some kind of protective order against such a perp, even if he/she obtained one against you first. Utah is such a jurisdiction. Consult a knowledgeable attorney in your jurisdiction to find out what options you may have.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/If-someone-put-a-restraining-order-on-you-only-because-they-thought-you-were-going-to-put-one-on-them-and-they-are-the-one-who-is-stalking-and-harassing-you-can-you-put-one-on-them-days-before-anything-is-decided-by/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

Can I sell or trade in the family car while divorce proceedings are pending?

How would a spouse in process of divorce go about trading her van that is in both spouses name, if the other spouse is uncooperative? Would surrendering her van to the bank be an alternative?

If you owe more on the van than it is worth and don’t depend upon the van for essential transportation needs, then if you were to sell the van such that you’d be left with just the loan deficiency (the difference between the amount the van was worth or sold for and the remaining balance of the loan), you’d probably not be punished. It would be hard for anyone to argue or for a court to conclude that by getting rid of a van worth less than the loan encumbering it you destroyed, dissipated, or diminished an “asset” that had a negative value. And if your spouse agrees (get it in writing!) you can sell the van, you’re fully in the clear.

Bear in mind, however, that many states have an “ATRO” rule (automatic temporary restraining order) that provides that in every divorce action that concerns the division of property then neither party may transfer, encumber, conceal, or dispose of any property of either party without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court, except in the usual course of business or to provide for the necessities of life. Violation of this rule can result in you being sanctioned for contempt of court. Other states that don’t have ATROs in divorce cases can still provide for the judge to enter a restraining order at the outset of a divorce case that, among other things, restrains you and your spouse from transferring or disposing of any marital property without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court.

Also bear in mind that if your credit is already bad and you won’t be able to qualify for a new loan for a replacement vehicle, you may be better off paying the loan for a vehicle you have in hand. And if 1) your spouse depended on using that van to get to work or the doctor or the store, etc., 2) your spouse does not want the van sold, and 3) by selling the van you would deprive your spouse of his/her only means of transportation, the court would likely frown on that and order you to provide or pay for a replacement vehicle.

The safest way to sell off the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle is to move the court (file a motion with the court) for permission to sell the van or trade the van in for a different vehicle. Now just because you filed the motion does not necessarily mean the court will grant that motion.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-would-a-spouse-in-process-of-divorce-go-about-trading-her-van-that-is-in-both-spouses-name-if-the-other-spouse-is-uncooperative-Would-surrendering-her-van-to-the-bank-be-an-alternative/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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What do husbands do when they are served with a restraining order?

What do husbands usually do when they are served with a restraining order?

The innocent ones:

  1. “What the he— is this?”
  2. “She can’t legally do this, can she?”
  3. “Oh my gosh, do you see all the B.S. claims she’s making here?”
  4. “Does this mean I have a criminal record now?”
  5. “Am I going to lose my job over this?”
  6. Weeping
  7. Rage
  8. Despair
  9. Paralysis
  10. “Hi, I’m _________. I’m calling your law office because I was just served with a temporary restraining order and I need your help.”

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-do-husbands-usually-do-when-they-are-served-with-a-restraining-order/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can I renew the no contact order?

Probably, but even if the no contact order cannot be renewed, or if the police or court (depending upon who in your jurisdiction has the authority to renew the no contact order) refuse to renew the no contact order, then there are a variety of other options you may have to provide the same or substantially similar protections:

  • Protective orders (also known by other names like Orders of Protection, etc.)
  • Restraining Orders
  • Stalking Injunctions

To find out whether you can renew a no contact order, talk to a lawyer who deals with criminal and domestic relations matters or to a knowledgeable person at your police or sheriff’s office.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Can I get a restraining order against a person living in the same house?

Can one get a restraining order against a person living in the same house as me?

Sure. There’s no requirement that the petitioner and respondent in a restraining order matter reside separately as a condition to obtaining a restraining order or protective order, although it is common for for a petitioner who is currently residing with the respondent (or who recently resided with, but then fled) to escape the danger posed by the respondent) to ask that the restraining order or protective order eject the respondent from the marital or shared residence as a means of ensuring that one is protected.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Can-a-person-get-a-restraining-order-on-a-person-in-the-same-house/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How can I get my high-conflict ex to violate any terms of our court order?

How can I get my high-conflict ex to violate any terms of our court order? He operates within the confines of the legal language, but harasses and torments me at every opportunity. I have no recourse because he hasn’t broken any law, technically.

OK, I think I understand what you’re asking and why. I don’t think you’re saying that you want to entrap your ex into violating your divorce decree orders when your ex has no intention of violating them.

I believe that you are frustrated with how your ex is making you miserable without having violated the decree of divorce or otherwise appearing to you to have done anything illegal for which he can be held accountable.

The good news is that if your ex is chronically tormenting you, he probably is violating at least one law and or doing something for which the law has a remedy for you.

Go talk to the police or to the prosecuting attorney in your city or county.

Let me give you a few examples from the jurisdiction where I practice divorce and family law:

Temporary Restraining Orders

Utah Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 65A. Injunctions

Electronic communication harassment

Utah Code § 76-9-201. Electronic communication harassment — Definitions — Penalties

Civil Stalking

Utah Code § 77-3a-101. Civil stalking injunction — Petition — Ex parte injunction

Criminal Stalking

Utah Code § 76-5-106.5. Stalking — Definitions — Injunction — Penalties — Duties of law enforcement officer

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-get-my-high-conflict-ex-to-violate-any-terms-of-our-court-order-He-operates-within-the-confines-of-the-legal-language-but-harasses-and-torments-me-at-every-opportunity-I-have-no-recourse-because-he-hasn-t/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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2019 UT App 207 – Peeples v. Peeples – modification of child custody

2019 UT App 207 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

ADAM LEGRANDE PEEPLES, Appellee,
v.
ANNALEISE T. PEEPLES, Appellant.

Opinion
No. 20180713-CA
Filed December 19, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Andrew H. Stone
No. 044901980

Brian Boggess, Attorney for Appellant
Adam L. Peeples, Appellee Pro Se

JUDGE RYAN M. HARRIS authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and KATE APPLEBY concurred.

HARRIS, Judge:

¶1           Annaleise T. Peeples (Mother) asked the district court to modify her divorce decree to give her sole custody of her two teenage daughters, but the district court refused, determining that Mother had failed to demonstrate any substantial change in the circumstances underlying the original decree. Mother now appeals the district court’s order dismissing her petition to modify, and we affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2           In 2004, after about three-and-a-half years of marriage, Adam Legrande Peeples (Father) filed for divorce from Mother, citing irreconcilable differences. Around the same time, Father also sought and obtained a protective order against Mother, asserting that Mother had been physically abusive to him; that protective order awarded temporary custody of the parties’ two young daughters to Father. The parties were each represented by counsel in both the divorce and the protective order proceedings, and because of the allegations of physical abuse, the court also appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the two children. Early in the divorce case, all parties and counsel appeared before a domestic relations commissioner to discuss the parties’ motions for temporary orders. Following that hearing, the commissioner entered a temporary order, later countersigned by the assigned trial judge, awarding temporary custody of the children to Father, as the protective order did, with Mother receiving parent-time.

¶3           As the divorce proceedings progressed, the district court appointed a custody evaluator to make a recommendation to the court. While the custody evaluation was ongoing, the court entered a stipulated bifurcated decree of divorce in 2005, severing the parties’ marital union but reserving all other issues, including custody and parent-time, for further proceedings. In 2007, Mother filed her first motion for a change in custody, alleging that the temporary order giving custody to Father was unworkable because Mother lived in northern Utah County and Father lived in Salt Lake County, and because Father had “moved three times in three years and has not demonstrated stability.” Father objected, and after briefing and oral argument, the commissioner denied Mother’s motion.

¶4           In October 2007, soon after the commissioner denied Mother’s motion for a change in temporary custody, the parties and counsel participated in a settlement conference with the custody evaluator, at which the evaluator orally shared with the parties his recommendation: that primary physical custody remain with Father. At a hearing in December 2007, the guardian ad litem informed the court that he agreed with the custody evaluator’s recommendation. At that same hearing, the district court set a date for a bench trial to resolve all remaining issues.

¶5           Following the commissioner’s ruling on Mother’s motion and the court’s decision to set a trial date, as well as the revelation of the recommendations made by the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem, the parties and their counsel entered into negotiations, and were able to resolve the remaining issues by stipulation. On April 28, 2008, after more than four years of divorce litigation, the court entered a stipulated amended decree of divorce, awarding the parties “joint legal custody” of the children, but awarding Father “primary physical custody.” Mother was to have “liberal parenting time” amounting to five out of every fourteen overnights during the school year, with the schedule to be “reversed” during the summertime.

¶6           Perhaps not surprisingly, given the nature and tone of the four years of pre-decree litigation, entry of the final divorce decree did not end the divisiveness and discord between these parties. About a year-and-a-half after the amended decree was entered, Mother filed a petition to modify, seeking amendments to the parent-time provisions of the decree. Mother alleged that circumstances had changed substantially since the entry of the decree because Father had enrolled the children in year-round school, rendering certain of the decree’s provisions unworkable, and because Father had violated the decree in numerous particulars. Father responded by filing a cross-petition to modify, seeking sole legal and physical custody. After further proceedings, the district court declined to modify the original divorce decree, and denied the parties’ dueling petitions.

¶7           A few years later, in 2013, Mother filed the instant petition to modify, this time seeking sole physical custody of the children. Mother asserted that circumstances had changed in three specific ways. First, she contended that Father had been “unable to provide a stable home environment” and find “stable employment.” Second, she contended that Father had “denied [her] physical visitation” to which she was entitled pursuant to the decree. Third, she contended that Father had “become violent with other people” and that “the children [had] been emotionally abused.”

¶8           Soon after the filing of Mother’s 2013 petition to modify, the parties agreed to have another custody evaluation done. After some procedural wrangling about the identity of the evaluator, the court finally appointed one, and the new evaluator interviewed the parties and the children in the fall of 2015. In January 2016, the evaluator shared her recommendation with the parties’ attorneys: that Mother be awarded sole physical custody, with Father to receive “standard minimum parent time.” Soon thereafter, the court appointed a different guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the best interests of the children during the proceedings on the petition to modify.

¶9           From there, it took over a year to get to trial on the petition to modify; trial eventually took place over two days in December 2017. Just a few days before trial was to begin, the GAL issued a report containing his recommendations. Unlike the custody evaluator, the GAL recommended that the custody arrangement remain unchanged, with Father retaining primary physical custody. He explained that, while he understood the evaluator’s “rationale for recommending a change in custody at the time [the] evaluation was performed, over two years [had] passed” since the evaluator conducted her interviews, and he expressed his view that the information on which the evaluator based her conclusions was outdated.

¶10         At trial, Mother (as the petitioner on the petition to modify) presented her case first, and called three witnesses over the first day-and-a-half of trial: herself, Father, and the custody evaluator. At the conclusion of Mother’s case-in-chief, Father made an oral motion to dismiss the petition to modify, arguing that Mother failed to “meet her burden to prove that a significant change in circumstances has taken place.” After hearing argument from both sides, as well as from the GAL, the court granted Father’s motion. The court explained that Father’s relative instability had been constant since before the decree was entered, and therefore was not a change in circumstances; that any violations by Father of the terms of the decree could be resolved in contempt proceedings, and—especially in a case in which “[t]he parties have been in constant conflict since their separation and likely before”—that those violations did not rise to the level of unworkability that would constitute a change in circumstances; and found that there had not been any violence or emotional abuse. The court noted that the parties had been fighting over custody for some thirteen years, and that the fighting had been fairly constant. The court stated that, in such a “high-conflict” case, “if anything, the need to show a change in circumstances [is] even stronger,” and “the need for a permanent decree . . . that people can rely on . . . is that much greater.” A few weeks later, the court entered a written order, drafted by Father’s counsel, dismissing Mother’s petition to modify; that order contained a provision stating that, “[i]n a high conflict divorce such as this one, the need for finality is even greater and therefore the burden to show a material and significant change in circumstances should be higher than normal.”

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶11         Mother now appeals from the district court’s order dismissing her petition to modify. When reviewing such a decision, we review the district court’s underlying findings of fact, if any, for clear error, see Vaughan v. Romander, 2015 UT App 244, ¶ 7, 360 P.3d 761, and we review for abuse of discretion its ultimate determination regarding the presence or absence of a substantial change in circumstances, see Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. The district court’s choice of legal standard, however, presents an issue of law that we review for correctness. See id. ¶ 6.

ANALYSIS

¶12         Mother challenges the district court’s dismissal of her petition to modify on two general grounds. First, she contends that the district court employed an incorrect (and overly strict) legal standard in determining whether circumstances had changed sufficiently to justify reopening the governing custody order. Specifically, she asserts that the court did not properly take into account the fact that the decree at issue was stipulated rather than adjudicated, and she takes issue with the statement in the court’s written order that, in “high conflict” cases, the burden of demonstrating a change in circumstances is “higher than normal.” Second, Mother contends that the district court abused its discretion in determining, on the facts of this case, that no substantial and material change in circumstances existed. We address each of these contentions in turn.

A

¶13         Under Utah law, petitions to modify custody orders are governed by a two-part test:

A court order modifying . . . an existing joint legal custody or joint physical custody order shall contain written findings that: (i) a material and substantial change of circumstance has occurred; and (ii) a modification . . . would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child.

Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10.4(2)(b) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). Because “[t]he required finding of a material and substantial change of circumstances is statutory, . . . [n]either this court nor the supreme court has purported to—or could—alter that requirement.” Zavala v. Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 16, 366 P.3d 422; see also Doyle v. Doyle, 2011 UT 42, ¶ 38, 258 P.3d 553 (“Even an overwhelming case for the best interest of the child could not compensate for a lack of proof of a change in circumstances.”). Thus, “only if a substantial change of circumstances is found should the [district] court consider whether a change of custody is appropriate given the child’s best interests.” Wright v. Wright, 941 P.2d 646, 651 (Utah Ct. App. 1997) (quotation simplified).

¶14         This statutory requirement that a substantial change in circumstances be present before a court may modify a custody order serves two important ends. “First, the emotional, intellectual, and moral development of a child depends upon a reasonable degree of stability.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 602 (Utah 1989). We have previously noted the “deleterious effects of ‘ping-pong’ custody awards” that subject children to ever-changing custody arrangements. See Taylor v. Elison, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 13, 263 P.3d 448 (quotation simplified). Second, the requirement “is based in the principles of res judicata,” as “courts typically favor the one-time adjudication of a matter to prevent the undue burdening of the courts and the harassing of parties by repetitive actions.” Id. (quotation simplified); see also Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 16 (stating that the statutory change-in­circumstances requirement is “a legislative expression of the principle of res judicata”).

¶15         The change-in-circumstances requirement is itself comprised of two parts. In order to satisfy it, “the party seeking modification must demonstrate (1) that since the time of the previous decree, there have been changes in the circumstances upon which the previous award was based; and (2) that those changes are sufficiently substantial and material to justify reopening the question of custody.” Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51, 54 (Utah 1982). In this context, however, our case law has drawn something of a distinction between adjudicated custody decrees and stipulated custody decrees, recognizing that “an unadjudicated custody decree” is not necessarily “based on an objective, impartial determination of the best interests of the child,” and therefore the res judicata policies “underlying the changed-circumstances rule [are] at a particularly low ebb.” See Taylor, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 14 (quotation simplified). In Zavala, we clarified that the change-in-circumstances requirement still applies even in cases involving stipulated (as opposed to adjudicated) custody orders, although we acknowledged that, in some cases, “a lesser showing” of changed circumstances may “support modifying a stipulated award than would be required to modify an adjudicated award.” See 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 17.

¶16         In this case, the court did not specifically discuss the distinction our case law has drawn between stipulated and adjudicated decrees, or the extent to which this decree should be considered stipulated or adjudicated. The court simply applied the change-in-circumstances requirement and found it not met on the facts of this case. In one recent case, we found no error under similar circumstances. See Erickson v. Erickson, 2018 UT App 184, ¶ 21, 437 P.3d 370 (declining to reverse a district court’s determination that no substantial and material change in circumstances had been shown, despite the fact that the district court did not specifically consider “the fact that the underlying custody award was based on a stipulated agreement”).

¶17         But more to the point, we think it unhelpful to view the adjudicated/stipulated dichotomy as entirely binary; instead, in assessing how much “lesser” a showing might be required to satisfy the change-in-circumstances requirement, see Zavala, 2016 UT App 6, ¶ 17, courts should examine the origin of the order in question and analyze the extent to which the order—even if stipulated—reflects the result of robustly contested litigation aimed at ascertaining the best interest of the child.

¶18         We discern no error here, even though the district court did not expressly discuss the origin of the custody decree at issue, because the decree—although entered as a result of a negotiated settlement—was more akin to an adjudicated decree than a non-adjudicated decree. Here, the decree was finalized in April 2008, after more than four years of litigation between the parties, during which both parties were represented by counsel the entire time. The parties had fully litigated not only motions for protective orders, which involved custody determinations made by a court, but also motions for temporary orders before the court commissioner and the district court wherein temporary custody determinations were made. Moreover, the court had appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the children, and in addition a full evaluation had been performed by a neutral court-appointed custody evaluator. The parties did not reach their negotiated settlement in this case until after they had received input from not only the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem, but also from the commissioner and the court during the temporary orders process. By the time the settlement was reached, four years of litigation had passed and a trial date had been set. In the end, the decree encapsulated, for the most part, the recommendations made by the guardian ad litem and the custody evaluator, and memorialized an arrangement very similar to the one previously ordered by the court on a temporary basis.

¶19         We certainly recognize the potential for injustice with certain types of stipulated custody orders; indeed, this is part of the reason why courts, when considering petitions to modify, retain the flexibility to be less deferential to stipulated custody orders. See Taylor, 2011 UT App 272, ¶ 14 (stating that unadjudicated custody decrees “may in fact be at odds with the best interests of the child” (quotation simplified)). Depending on the situation, our confidence that a stipulated custody decree—at least one that is submitted to the court before receipt of input from judicial officers during the temporary orders process or from custody evaluators or guardians ad litem—will actually be in keeping with the best interest of the child may be comparatively low, especially where neither side is represented by counsel (or, potentially more concerning, when only one side is represented by counsel). Inequalities in negotiating power or financial resources can sometimes result in one parent agreeing to conditions by stipulation that may not be in the long-term best interest of the child.

¶20         But such concerns are not present in a case like this one, where the parties reached a negotiated agreement after fully and robustly participating in the litigation process, with lawyers, for more than four years. The terms of the negotiated custody decree in this case—entered on the eve of a scheduled trial—did not substantially deviate from the terms of the temporary custody order imposed by the court, and were heavily influenced by the recommendations of both the custody evaluator and the guardian ad litem. In this case, therefore, we have relatively high confidence that the custody order was in line with the best interests of the children. Accordingly, we discern no error in the district court’s decision to apply the change-in-circumstances requirement without watering it down to account for the fact that the custody order in question was, technically speaking, stipulated.

¶21         We are more concerned, however, with the district court’s statement in its written order that, in “high conflict” cases, “the burden to show a material and significant change in circumstances should be higher than normal.” The district court offered no citation to any authority supporting this principle in our case law, and we are aware of none. We take this opportunity to clarify that there is no separate standard that courts are to apply in high-conflict cases when considering whether a substantial change of circumstances is present in the context of a petition to modify. Nevertheless, we are not persuaded that the district court’s statement made a material difference to its analysis in this case. In context, especially after reviewing the court’s oral ruling, we view the court’s statement as simply acknowledging that, in high-conflict divorce cases, parties are perhaps more willing to seek modification more often, and that the danger of “ping-pong” custody awards in those cases is therefore proportionately higher.

¶22         In the end, we are convinced, after a review of the full record, that the district court applied the proper two-step analysis to determine whether a substantial and material change in circumstances occurred here. First, the court analyzed whether, “since the time of the previous decree, there have been changes in the circumstances upon which the previous award was based.” See Hogge, 649 P.2d at 54. Second, the court analyzed whether “those changes are sufficiently substantial and material to justify reopening the question of custody.” See id. Because we conclude that the court applied the proper test, we now proceed to analyze whether the court abused its discretion in its application of that test.

B

¶23         In her petition to modify, Mother pointed to three things that she believed led to a substantial and material change in circumstances. First, she contended that Father had been “unable to provide a stable home environment” and find “stable employment.” Second, she contended that Father had “denied [her] physical visitation” to which she was entitled pursuant to the decree. Third, she contended that Father had “become violent with other people” and that “the children have been emotionally abused.” After hearing evidence for a day-and-a-half, the district court concluded that these things did not constitute a substantial and material change in circumstances, finding either that they were occurring, at most, infrequently, or that they had been occurring throughout the litigation and therefore could not constitute a change in circumstances. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in making that determination.

1

¶24         Mother’s first contention was that Father had “been unable to provide a stable home environment” for the children because he had “been evicted from several residences” resulting in the children having to change schools a number of times. In addition, Mother contended that Father had not “had stable employment for the last eight years.” The district court acknowledged that Mother had presented evidence that Father’s “income was questionable and [his] lifestyle was a little bit itinerant.” But the court noted in its oral ruling that this had been the case both “before and after the decree,” and that nothing had changed in this regard. In its written ruling, the court made a finding that it had “not received evidence that there has been a significant and material change in [Father’s] ability to provide the children with a stable home.”

¶25         It is unclear from Mother’s brief whether she even intends to challenge the district court’s factual findings, stating that her “appeal is primarily legal.” But in any event Mother has not carried her burden—if indeed she intended to shoulder that burden—of demonstrating that the court’s factual finding was clearly erroneous. As noted above, Mother alleged as early as 2007—in her pre-decree motion to alter the terms of the court’s temporary custody order—that Father had “moved three times in three years and has not demonstrated stability.” Despite Father’s itinerant nature, the first custody evaluator recommended that primary physical custody be awarded to Father, and the stipulated decree followed that recommendation. Presumably, all of that was taken into account during the litigation that preceded entry of the decree. Moreover, in her own petition to modify filed in 2013, Mother alleged that Father’s employment instability had been an issue “for the last eight years,” dating back to 2005, three years before entry of the decree. Issues that were present prior to the decree, and continue to be present in much the same way thereafter, do not represent a change in circumstances sufficient to justify the reopening of a custody decree. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3­ 10.4(2)(b)(i) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019) (requiring a “change of circumstance” before reopening a custody decree); see also Becker v. Becker, 694 P.2d 608, 610 (Utah 1984) (stating that the rationale behind the change-in-circumstances requirement “is that custody placements, once made, should be as stable as possible unless the factual basis for them has completely changed”). In the end, Mother has not shown that the district court’s finding—that Father’s employment instability and itinerant nature had been present the whole time and therefore did not constitute a substantial change in circumstances—was clearly erroneous.

2

¶26         Mother’s next contention was that Father failed on numerous occasions to facilitate parent-time as required under the divorce decree. The district court found that, while Father may have committed occasional violations of the terms of the decree, “[t]he court has not received evidence that any denial of physical visitation on the part of [Father] was systemic, deliberate, or pathogenic enough to satisfy the requirements of the law in reopening” the decree.

¶27         Ordinarily, when one parent commits a violation of the terms of a divorce decree, the other parent’s remedy lies in contempt. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 78B-6-301(5), -310 (LexisNexis 2018) (categorizing “disobedience of any lawful judgment [or] order” as “contempt[] of the authority of the court,” and authorizing courts to sanction violators); see also, e.g., Clarke v. Clarke, 2012 UT App 328, ¶¶ 24–31, 292 P.3d 76 (resolving one parent’s request for contempt sanctions against the other for asserted violations of a custody order). In most cases, violations of a custody order by one party will not constitute the type of substantial and material change in circumstances that will justify reexamining the propriety of the order. But if the violations are so numerous and pervasive that it becomes evident that the custody arrangement is “not functioning,” then a change in circumstances may have occurred. See Moody v. Moody, 715 P.2d 507, 509 (Utah 1985) (“[T]he nonfunctioning of a joint custody arrangement is clearly a substantial change in circumstances which justifies reopening the custody issue.”); see also Huish v. Munro, 2008 UT App 283, ¶ 13, 191 P.3d 1242 (same).

¶28         In this case, the district court, after hearing Mother’s evidence, made a factual finding that the evidence of Father’s potentially contemptuous behavior was not so overwhelming as to render the decree unworkable. The court noted that the parties had been “in constant conflict since their separation and likely before,” and that they were “still at war” thirteen years after their separation. The court found that, while Father may have violated the decree with regard to parent-time on a few occasions, Father’s violations were not “systemic, deliberate, or pathogenic enough to satisfy the requirements of the law in reopening” the decree.

¶29         As noted above, it is unclear if Mother even intends to challenge the district court’s factual findings, but in any event she has not demonstrated clear error here. The district court’s finding that the decree had not been rendered unworkable as the result of Father’s violations was supported by, among other evidence, the recommendation of the court-appointed GAL, who expressed the view that the custody arrangement was working well enough and should remain unchanged, and that “the children have maintained throughout these proceedings that they are happy with the current arrangement.” Mother has not demonstrated that the district court’s determination about the decree’s workability was clearly erroneous.

3

¶30         Mother’s final contention was that Father had “become violent with other people and the children have been emotionally abused.” After hearing the evidence, the district court found insufficient evidence that Father had been violent or that he had emotionally abused anyone. In her brief, Mother makes no serious effort to challenge this factual finding, and therefore we are unable to find any error therein.

4

¶31         Given that Mother has not mounted a successful challenge to any of the district court’s factual findings, all that remains is for us to examine whether, given these findings, the court abused its discretion in determining that no material and substantial change in circumstances had occurred. See Doyle v. Doyle, 2009 UT App 306, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 888, aff’d, 2011 UT 42, 258 P.3d 553. And on this record, we have no trouble concluding that the court did not abuse its discretion in making that determination. Many of the issues identified by Mother in her petition—such as Father’s unstable employment and frequent change of residence—had been present from the outset of this case, and were present before the decree was entered; such ever-present conditions cannot constitute a change in circumstances sufficient to reopen a custody decree. Any issues Father had with complying with the terms of the decree were apparently not egregious or pervasive enough to render the custody arrangement unworkable. And the district court, after listening to a day-and-a-half of evidence, did not hear any evidence that Father had acted violently or abusively toward anyone.

¶32         Under these circumstances, the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Mother had not carried her burden of demonstrating a change in circumstances that was substantial and material enough to justify reexamining the parties’ longstanding custody arrangement. Because Mother did not satisfy the first part of the statutory test for obtaining a modification of a divorce decree, the district court did not err by dismissing her petition.

CONCLUSION

¶33         For all of the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s dismissal of Mother’s petition to modify.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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