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Tag: class A misdemeanor

2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer – Parent Charged With Child Abuse

2023 UT App 65 – State v. Meyer

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee,

v.

ELIZABETH LYDIA MEYER,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20210718-CA

Filed June 15, 2023

First District Court, Brigham City Department

The Honorable Spencer Walsh

No. 181100556

Wendy M. Brown, Debra M. Nelson, and Benjamin Miller, Attorneys for Appellant

Blair T. Wardle, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Elizabeth Lydia Meyer’s[1] ex-husband (Father) discovered bruising on their daughter (Child) after picking her up from Meyer’s home. The State charged Meyer with child abuse and, at a bench trial, used a process-of-elimination approach to argue that Meyer was the only possible cause of the bruising. The district court convicted Meyer, and she now appeals. Meyer asserts that the court erred in admitting the preliminary hearing testimony of her now-husband. We agree that this action was erroneous and prejudiced Meyer, so we vacate her conviction.

BACKGROUND

¶2          One Wednesday in July 2018, Father picked up Child, then two years old, from Meyer’s home for a regular midweek visit. Meyer and Father had been through a “fairly contentious” divorce, and their relationship was sometimes “volatile,” so Father had made it a habit to record via cellphone his pickups of Child. His video recording from this day shows marks on the upper portions of both of Child’s arms. But Father did not notice the marks until later, when he was at a restaurant with Child. Father exchanged texts with Meyer about the marks:

Father: I noticed that [Child] has what looks like bruises on her arm. Is she okay?

Meyer: Yes, she’s fine.

Father: How did she get those marks?

Meyer: How do children get the majority of their bruises? What direction are you trying to go with this?

Father: I’m just concerned because the bruising pattern is not consistent with normal childhood injuries.

Meyer: Since when did you become an expert in that matter? I understand that you want to pretend to care about my daughter, but I do not wish to have you go on a third witch hunt and falsely accuse someone like you already have done twice, even though we both know you’re dying to. You do not make any of her medical appointments. And the last I knew you have not completed any courses in the direction. So please leave your harassing comments to yourself.

¶3          After dinner, Father drove to the police station and asked for an officer to examine Child’s arms. An officer (Officer) and a caseworker (Caseworker) from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) met with Father and photographed Child’s arms approximately two hours after Father had picked up Child.

¶4          Officer and Caseworker then visited Meyer’s home. Outside, they met Michael Glenn, Meyer’s then-boyfriend whom she married before the case went to trial. Glenn was initially “defiant” and did not want them to enter the house, but when they showed him photos of Child’s bruises, he was concerned and let them in.

¶5          Officer and Caseworker entered the house and spoke with Meyer, who was very upset. Officer asked Meyer what could have caused bruising on Child’s arms, and Meyer gave multiple possible explanations, including Child falling out of the car when she arrived home from daycare, Child playing with hair ties that were like rubber bands (which she snapped on her arms), or Child playing roughly with her older brother and sometimes getting rug burns from the roughhousing. Caseworker asked Meyer how she had picked Child up when Child fell out of the car after returning from daycare, and Meyer responded along the lines that she picked Child up like any mother would and cleaned her face. Meyer also reported that she had caused a mark on Child’s upper arm when Child ran into the street and Meyer pulled her back. Caseworker showed Meyer photos of Child’s bruises, and Meyer was very surprised, saying, “They were not like that.”

¶6          Glenn gave Officer contact information for Child’s daycare provider (Daycare Provider). When Officer spoke to Daycare Provider on the phone, she confirmed that Child had been in her care that day. Daycare Provider also confirmed that she had asked Meyer about a mark on Child’s arm when Meyer picked Child up that day and that Meyer told her she had grabbed Child to prevent her from running into the street.

¶7          The next day, Father took Child for a physical exam, which was completed by a forensic nurse examiner (Nurse). In her report, Nurse identified “[p]ositive physical findings of injury to bilateral upper arms and left forearm” and described the upper arm injuries as “circumferential and linear with equal spacing between” them and stated that the bruises were “highly indicative for a squeezing mechanism and physical abuse.” Child was not returned to Meyer’s care.

¶8          The case was transferred to a detective (Detective), who called Meyer two days after the alleged incident and recorded the phone call. During the call, Meyer implied that Father was the source of Child’s bruises because, according to her, Child had no bruises until she was in Father’s care and Meyer believed that “[h]e [was] trying to get [her] daughter away from [her].” Meyer was very upset during the call and indicated that she had been previously accused of child abuse, presumably by Father. Meyer also stated that she did not see any bruises or marks on Child— other than the mark from the incident she reported of grabbing Child to stop her from running into the road—before giving Child to Father. But she explained that Child would sometimes scratch herself, leaving marks, and hit and bite things. Meyer also spoke about Glenn’s whereabouts on the day of the incident, indicating that Glenn was asleep when Child came home and remained asleep until after Father had picked Child up.

¶9          Detective wrote in his police report that Child’s older brother, then four years old, “was asked where his sister got the marks on her arm and he said that it was from someone who had power and squeezed hard.” Detective spoke to Daycare Provider, though he did not inspect her home; perform a background check on her; or speak with the parents of other children she babysat or with the three children she had living with her, who were ages fourteen, ten, and eight and may have had access to Child. Detective later testified that he didn’t really consider Daycare Provider a suspect after speaking with her. He also ruled out Glenn as a suspect based on Meyer’s statement that Glenn had been asleep between the time Child came home from daycare and the time Father picked up Child. However, in his report he wrote that he told Meyer he didn’t think the incident causing the bruising had happened on that day. But at trial he testified that, based on his investigation, the timeline he established was that there were no visible bruises—other than the one caused by Meyer stopping Child from running into the street—until the time between Meyer picking Child up from daycare and Father picking her up from Meyer within the next forty-five minutes.

¶10 In August 2018, another officer (Sergeant) interviewed Meyer in person at Detective’s request. Meyer’s statements were consistent with those she had made previously. Specifically, Meyer again stated that Glenn was asleep when Child returned from daycare and did not wake up until after Child left with Father.

¶11        In December 2018, the State charged Meyer with one count of child abuse, a class A misdemeanor.

¶12        The district court held a preliminary hearing in May 2019. Among other witnesses, the State subpoenaed Glenn to testify at the hearing. When he was called to testify, he was hostile, and the court threatened to hold him in contempt and take him into custody. But Glenn ultimately did testify. While he first declared that it was “100 percent incorrect” that he told Officer and Caseworker that the marks had not been on Child in the morning, after reviewing Officer’s bodycam footage, he admitted that he did say that. He also testified that after waking up that morning, he went straight to the car and didn’t notice any marks on Child’s arms, but he said he was busy “concentrating on driving and getting to and from.” He described how he went with Meyer to drop Child off at daycare in the morning. He testified that he was asleep when Meyer brought Child home. And he declared that he did not cause Child’s bruising.

¶13 Sometime after the preliminary hearing, Meyer married Glenn, and Meyer’s defense counsel (Defense Counsel) informed the State via email that Glenn intended to invoke his spousal privilege related to testifying at trial. The State told Defense Counsel that Glenn was “still required to show up to court to produce evidence that he [was], in fact, married . . . and take the stand to actually invoke the privilege.” The prosecutor insisted, “This is important because then he will become an unavailable witness. As an unavailable witness, I will then be able to play his preliminary hearing audio in lieu of his testimony.” Defense Counsel indicated that she “had anticipated that [the State] would be able to get Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony in at trial.”

¶14        When Defense Counsel later informed the State that Glenn would be on bed rest following surgery on the date of trial (which had been continued multiple times), they discussed the possibilities of Glenn testifying via video during trial or of filing stipulated facts related to his testimony. But Glenn filed a motion to quash the subpoena against him. The State then sent Defense Counsel a transcript and redacted audio file of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony that it intended to have admitted at trial, and Defense Counsel responded, “I would absolutely object to both the transcript and the audio coming in at trial. . . . Glenn’s testimony is hearsay[,] and to introduce it would also be a violation of my client’s confrontation rights.” Defense Counsel explained, “The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that because there is a different motive for examining witnesses at a preliminary hearing than that at a trial, said testimony is inadmissible.”

¶15        The State then filed a motion to admit Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. After receiving briefing and hearing oral argument, the court found that Glenn’s testimony fell under the exception to hearsay in rule 804(b)(1) of the Utah Rules of Evidence for former testimony of an unavailable witness. The court acknowledged caselaw indicating that defendants are restricted in developing testimony at preliminary hearings, see State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 32–33, 423 P.3d 1236, but it distinguished that caselaw from the facts of this case and admitted the testimony.

¶16 The court held a bench trial in May 2021. In its opening statement, the State indicated that “through the process of elimination,” it would “show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was . . . Meyer who committed child abuse.”

¶17 In addition to Glenn’s testimony, Daycare Provider testified at trial that Child had been in her care from roughly 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. that day. She stated that she did not see any marks or injuries on Child when Child was dropped off and she never saw marks like those photographed, but she did notice a different mark on Child’s arm later in the day, and this was the mark she asked Meyer about. She also testified that on the day of the bruising, she did not take Child to the park, she did not know of any equipment Child could have accessed that would have caused the injuries, Child did not get injured playing with toys, Child did not receive any injuries while in her care, and Child did not cry or appear to be in pain while in her care. She admitted, though, that she was aware that Child had been “kicked out of her previous day care . . . for playing too rough” and that Child “play[ed] really rough with toys and hit[] dolls a lot.”

¶18        Nurse testified that after examining Child, she “speculated . . . that because of the spacing, and the shape, and the location of the injuries, the colors that [she] saw, they were most definitely bruises,” the spacing of which “could fit a hand.” She said, “I’m not telling you it’s fitting a hand because—you know, I can’t say it was a hand unless I watched it happen, but I can tell you that those are bruises that are in a linear form that you don’t just get from falling down.” She further testified that based on the location, direction, and shape of the bruising, she did not believe that the incidents Meyer had described as possible accidental sources of injury had caused Child’s bruises. She also testified that the marks were “fresher bruises” that, based on coloration, could have been caused within hours of when Officer and Caseworker photographed Child’s injuries. But she acknowledged that “there’s no scientific way to date a bruise” and said that while it was “likely that it occurred” that day, “literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶19 The State played a clip from the recorded interview between Meyer and Sergeant, in which Meyer stated that Child had a temper tantrum after arriving home from daycare and that Child tried to get out of being held and Meyer needed to grab her arm from the side.

¶20        In its closing argument, the State asked, “[W]ho caused the abuse?” and answered that “this is where we get into the process of elimination.” The State then explained its theory that the evidence proved that no one else could have caused the bruising, including Glenn, who “slept through the whole thing.”

¶21 The court ultimately found Meyer “guilty of a lesser-included offense of [c]lass B misdemeanor, child abuse, for having inflicted this injury on [Child] in a reckless manner.” The court provided its rationale, explaining in part that it “found highly credible the testimony” of Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” The court ruled out Glenn as a potential source of the injuries by saying, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court concluded, “And so there’s just no doubt in the [c]ourt’s mind that Mom, you lost your cool, you crossed a line, you squeezed your daughter’s arms, and it left that injury. It couldn’t have been anyone else.” The court sentenced Meyer to 180 days of jail but suspended 179 days. It also ordered a fine and probation.

¶22        Meyer subsequently filed a motion for a new trial through Defense Counsel. Defense Counsel then withdrew from representing Meyer. Meyer appeared pro se and asked the court to appoint counsel, but the State objected, and the court decided that Meyer did not qualify for appointed counsel based on her income. The court ultimately denied Meyer’s motion for a new trial. Meyer now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶23        Meyer argues on appeal that Glenn’s “preliminary hearing testimony should not have been admitted at trial” under an exception to the bar on hearsay.2 “When reviewing rulings on hearsay, [appellate courts] review legal questions regarding admissibility for correctness, questions of fact for clear error, and the final ruling on admissibility for abuse of discretion.” State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 31, 473 P.3d 218 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). But even “if we determine that the hearsay testimony should not have been admitted, we will reverse only if a reasonable likelihood exists that absent the error,

  1. Meyer also argues that the district court “committed plain error by failing to obtain a valid waiver of counsel before having [Meyer] represent herself on her motion for a new trial.” Because we rule in her favor on the first issue, we need not address this argument.

the result would have been more favorable to the defendant.” Id. (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Similar Motive and Opportunity

¶24 Meyer argues that the district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony. She asserts that Glenn’s testimony fails to qualify for the rule 804 exception to the evidentiary bar on hearsay. This exception applies when “the declarant is unavailable” and the declarant’s testimony was “given . . . at a trial, hearing, or lawful deposition” and is now “offered against a party who had . . . an opportunity and similar motive to develop it by direct, cross-, or redirect examination.” Utah R. Evid. 804(b)(1). Meyer argues that caselaw on this point “compels the conclusion that the admission of Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony was erroneous” because that caselaw indicates that the motive to develop an adverse witness’s testimony at a preliminary hearing differs from the motive to do so at trial.

¶25        In State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, 423 P.3d 1236, our supreme court discussed the effect of the 1994 amendment to Article I, Section 12 of the Utah Constitution, which limited “the function of preliminary examination to determining whether probable cause exists,” id. ¶ 31 (cleaned up) (discussing Utah Const. art. I, § 12). The court stated that, “by and large,” this provision “places most credibility determinations outside the reach of a magistrate at a preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 33. Therefore, “[o]ur constitution specifically limits the purpose of preliminary hearings in a manner that can undercut defense counsel’s opportunity to cross-examine witnesses at a preliminary hearing and thereby modify the interest counsel has in developing testimony on cross-examination.” Id. ¶ 41. But the court “eschewed a blanket rule” of inadmissibility for preliminary hearing testimony because it could “envision scenarios where, for whatever reason, defense counsel possesses the same motive and is provided the same opportunity to cross-examine as she would have at trial.” Id. ¶¶ 36–37. However, the court indicated that “such cases might prove rare.” Id. ¶ 36.

¶26 The Goins court then analyzed the motive for cross-examining a witness at the preliminary hearing by considering the facts of the case, which included the defendant allegedly brandishing a knife and accusing the later-unavailable witness of stealing his phone, after which the witness fled and the defendant assaulted the witness’s acquaintance. Id. ¶¶ 3–6. The court held that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [the defendant’s] counsel did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because the witness’s “testimony referenced concerns with [the defendant] and a prior incident between” the pair, so the defendant’s “counsel had a motive to develop this testimony and question [the witness’s] credibility” at trial “that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” Id. ¶ 46.

¶27 Subsequent cases have reached similar conclusions. In State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, 417 P.3d 86, a defendant faced a charge of aggravated robbery for allegedly robbing a cupcake shop at gunpoint, id. ¶¶ 1, 4. The store clerk testified at trial as to the events within the store, id. ¶ 19, but another witness—a witness who saw the perpetrator leave the scene, run across the road, and get into a car whose license plate she then reported—was not able to be in court on the day of the trial, id. ¶¶ 7–8, 16. The court admitted her preliminary hearing testimony, id. ¶ 19, but our supreme court held that this was improper, id. ¶ 40. It stated that in Goins, it had “conditioned the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony on a showing that defense counsel really did possess the same motive and was permitted a full opportunity for cross-examination at the preliminary hearing.” Id. ¶ 39 (cleaned up). And it said that “Goins foreclose[d] the admissibility of the . . . preliminary hearing testimony” because, “as in Goins, . . . [the court had] no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶28        Similarly, in State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021), this court applied the holding of Goins where a defendant faced charges related to the alleged kidnapping of two men and murder of one of them, id. ¶¶ 22–24. The court considered the admissibility of preliminary hearing testimony from a man who helped tie up the victims, drove the group to the murder site, supplied the gun, and observed the murder. Id. We noted that “whether the defense had a similar motive to develop prior testimony for purposes of rule 804(b)(1) will often turn on the nature of a witness and her testimony.” Id. ¶ 40 (cleaned up). Where the witness in question “was not only a critical eyewitness, but also an accomplice to each of the crimes,” we determined that “[t]he opportunity to cross-examine this type of witness at a preliminary hearing will likely be a poor substitute for confronting the witness at trial, where the jury can observe [the witness’s] demeanor and assess . . . credibility firsthand.” Id. Accordingly, we held that “the State did not demonstrate that [the defendant] had an adequate opportunity and similar motive to cross-examine [the witness] at the preliminary hearing as he would have had at trial.” Id. ¶ 41.

¶29 The district court believed that the present case was distinguishable from Goins because that case involved an “incident that could have caused motive for [the witness] to fabricate or fashion . . . testimony in such a way that would be damaging to [the defendant].” See Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46. On the other hand, the court stated, “in the case before the [c]ourt, there’s nothing that has been pointed to specifically that would indicate that there is a similar motive for . . . Glenn to have fabricated any of his testimony.” But the court’s analysis on this point was inadequate, as a witness’s motive for fabrication is not the only circumstance that might impact a defendant’s motive for questioning a witness at a preliminary hearing. This is obvious from Ellis, where the witness had no motive to fabricate testimony and our supreme court still held that it had “no basis to conclude that [the defendant’s] counsel’s preliminary hearing motive to cross-examine was similar to what would have existed at trial.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 40 (cleaned up).

¶30 The district court erred in concluding that the motives at the preliminary hearing and at trial were the same. The court stated that during the preliminary hearing “there was an opportunity to cross-examine [Glenn] as to whether he was the source of . . . the injuries, whether he abused [Child].” “In fact,” it pointed out, “the State specifically questioned him on that.” It continued, “[The preliminary hearing judge] would have never shut that down and said, ‘No, even though the State had questioned specifically, did you cause the injuries, [d]efense you’re prohibited from going after him to follow up on that question.’ Certainly that would have been permitted by . . . the [j]udge.” But this analysis does not align with our supreme court’s in Goins. The Goins court specifically addressed the reality that a per se rule of admissibility for preliminary hearing testimony of unavailable witnesses “places magistrates in the uncomfortable position of choosing between conducting preliminary hearings in fidelity with article I, section 12 and permitting the type of examinations” that were standard before the constitutional amendment limited the scope of preliminary hearings. 2017 UT 61, ¶ 34. The district court fails to accept that, as the supreme court suggests, Defense Counsel could have reasonably expected the court to limit questioning to that which was necessary for probable cause and prepared to cross-examine Glenn accordingly. See id. We reasoned similarly in Leech, where the defendant’s “counsel admitted that he did not pose a question during his cross-examination of [the witness] that was objected to and sustained, but he maintained that he did not have the same opportunity and motive to cross-examine [the witness] as he would have had at trial because he understood the limited scope of the hearing.” 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 28 (cleaned up). Accordingly, the district court erred in determining that Meyer had the same motive and opportunity to question Glenn in the preliminary hearing as she did at trial because the judge would— presumably—not have prevented follow-up questions to those that were asked.

¶31        Instead, the court should have recognized that the motives changed with respect to questioning witnesses at the preliminary hearing versus at trial. The State was clear that its case was based on a process of elimination. This point is hardly significant at a preliminary hearing, which seeks to determine if there was probable cause—a low standard—for a jury to conclude Meyer caused the bruising. See id. ¶ 20 (reciting the magistrate’s explanation at the defendant’s preliminary hearing that “different standards of proof apply at a probable cause hearing than apply at trial” and that “probable cause means enough evidence that the court is convinced that a reasonable jury could find, not that they necessarily would, but that they could find the offenses charged were committed and that [the defendants] were the individuals who committed them” (cleaned up)). Moreover, at a preliminary hearing, the facts are construed in the light most favorable to the State’s case. See id. (indicating that the magistrate informed the defendant that “one of the most important [differences] is that any doubts or questions about evidence at a preliminary hearing get resolved in favor of the State and against the defendants” and explained that “the benefit of the doubt goes to the State in a preliminary hearing” (cleaned up)). On the other hand, at trial the State must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, see, e.g.id. ¶ 64, and here the State needed to eliminate all other possible suspects beyond a reasonable doubt during trial. So the motive in questioning each witness at the preliminary hearing was to show lack of probable cause that Meyer was the source of Child’s bruises, while the motive at trial was to introduce reasonable doubt as to Meyer causing the bruises by convincing the court that someone else may have done so. In other words, with respect to Glenn, the motive shifted from showing that Glenn was the more likely source of the bruising to showing that Glenn could have caused the bruising such that there was reasonable doubt that Meyer caused it. Therefore, we hold, as did the Goins court, that it was “apparent on the record . . . that [Meyer] did not possess the same motive to develop testimony at the preliminary hearing that she would have had at trial” because at trial Meyer “had a motive to . . . question [Glenn’s] credibility that went beyond a preliminary hearing’s constitutionally limited purpose.” See 2017 UT 61, ¶ 46.

  1. Prejudice

¶32 “A determination of error in admitting [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony is not alone enough to sustain a reversal. We must also find that error prejudicial. Prejudice in this setting requires a showing of a reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See State v. Ellis, 2018 UT 2, ¶ 41, 417 P.3d 86 (cleaned up).

¶33 The relevant caselaw indicates that errors in admitting preliminary hearing testimony are sometimes harmless. In Goins, the court held that the error was prejudicial as to one charge but harmless as to another because on the first charge, the “testimony was the primary evidence admitted in support of” that charge but on the second charge, the testimony did not address the major underlying facts and the guilty verdict was supported by other witness testimony and corroborating photographs. State v. Goins, 2017 UT 61, ¶¶ 50–51, 423 P.3d 1236.

¶34        Similarly, in Leech, this court identified prejudice with respect to one count but not as to three others. State v. Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 48, 473 P.3d 218, cert. denied, 481 P.3d 1039 (Utah 2021). For the first, we determined that the “charge could not be proven without crediting” the testimony of the kidnapping victim who wasn’t killed and “there [was] a reasonable likelihood that the jury would not have believed” this person “without the corroboration [the unavailable witness’s] testimony provided.” Id. ¶ 63. But we held that two of the convictions were independently supported by three other witnesses. Id. ¶ 52. And for the final charge, one of its elements “was not disputed at trial” and the other two elements “did not depend on the veracity of the [unavailable witness’s] account of the murder itself.” Id. ¶ 62.

¶35        In Ellis, the court found prejudice where “the preliminary hearing testimony in this case was central to the prosecution’s case on this charge.” 2018 UT 2, ¶ 2. The court so concluded because the witness “provided key pieces of evidence that the jury likely credited,” including her being “the only witness who could testify that the robber fled in a car”—making her “the crucial link for what occurred after [the clerk] lost sight of the robber.” Id. ¶¶ 43, 45.

¶36 Here, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s testimony prejudiced Meyer because there is a “reasonable likelihood that the decision to admit [Glenn’s] preliminary hearing testimony altered the . . . verdict.” See id. ¶ 41 (cleaned up). The State’s presentation of the case against Meyer as a “process of elimination” impacts the fact-finder’s weighing of the evidence such that, for Glenn’s testimony to have been prejudicial, Meyer need show only that without the testimony, the court would have had a reasonable doubt that she was the source of the injuries. Meyer points us to this helpful insight offered by the Supreme Court of Illinois: “[I]f [the prosecution] intend[s] to obtain a conviction by the process of elimination by showing that no one else but [the] defendant could have been guilty, the burden [is] upon it to show that there was no one else in the other room.” People v. Boyd, 161 N.E.2d 311, 315 (Ill. 1959).

¶37        We agree with Meyer that removing Glenn’s erroneously admitted testimony makes a finding of reasonable doubt as to Meyer’s guilt much more likely. While Meyer’s own testimony corroborated Glenn’s account from the preliminary hearing that he was sleeping during the time Child was home from daycare until Father picked her up, that is not the only information Glenn provided. Glenn also testified that he did not cause the bruising. And he testified that, on the morning in question, he woke up and went directly to the car to drive Child to daycare, giving him no opportunity to interact with Child such that he could have caused her bruising that day.

¶38        The court, in providing the rationale for its conviction of Meyer, explained that it “found highly credible the testimony of” Nurse that the “bruising was consistent with the types of bruising she has seen in her child abuse conferences and trainings.” And it said, “You know, . . . Glenn is asleep by the time [Child] gets home and doesn’t really interact at all. And then we know for a fact that the injuries took place . . . definitively prior to when [Father] arrive[d] based off of the video.” The court clearly found that the bruises were caused before Father arrived, but it did not make a specific finding that the bruises could not have been caused earlier in the day. And Nurse, whose testimony the court found “highly credible,” testified multiple times that she could not provide a timeline for the cause of the bruising. When asked if it was “possible to at least rule out certain time frames,” Nurse responded, “What we were trained was that a fresher bruise is red or purple. . . . Red or purple means that this happened probably fairly close to the time that I saw her because of the darkness of the color, but . . . there’s no scientific way to date a bruise.” Nurse agreed that the bruises could have been caused “within hours.” But when Defense Counsel pressed, asking, “You testified a minute ago that you—it’s your opinion that with bruising, from what you observed, it’s more likely that it occurred like four hours before?” Nurse answered, “That day.” Defense Counsel stated, “That day. Two hours before, five hours before.” Nurse responded, “Purple-red is the colors you see first with bruising and there is—literally there is no way to determine when it happened.”

¶39 Given that removing Glenn’s testimony would have heightened the possibility that Glenn caused the injuries at some time outside the window between Child’s return from daycare and Father’s arrival, we conclude that Meyer was prejudiced. The State’s process-of-elimination approach makes Glenn’s preliminary hearing statements that he did not cause the bruising and did not have the opportunity to cause the bruising before Child went to daycare all the more significant. The State admitted as much when it argued for the admission of Glenn’s testimony, saying that “his testimony [was] necessary to the State to prove the case at trial.” We are hard-pressed to conclude that the testimony’s faulty admission was harmless when the State was so adamant that the testimony was essential in the first place. And the State fails to argue that Meyer was not prejudiced by the faulty admission or to point us to other evidence corroborating these key points of Glenn’s testimony. So without the preliminary hearing testimony, Glenn was not excluded—or at least not as easily excluded as he would have otherwise been. The State’s theory required it to eliminate all other possible suspects; without Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, it did not do so, and it is likely that the court would have concluded as much. In this respect, Glenn’s testimony is like that at issue in Ellis, because it was “central to the prosecution’s case” and “provided key pieces of evidence” under the State’s process-of-elimination approach. See 2018 UT 2, ¶¶ 2, 43. And this testimony is unlike that deemed nonprejudicial in Goins and Leech because Meyer’s conviction did “depend on the veracity of [Glenn’s] account.” See Leech, 2020 UT App 116, ¶ 62. Accordingly, the court’s error in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony prejudiced Meyer.

CONCLUSION

¶40 The district court erred in admitting Glenn’s preliminary hearing testimony, and Meyer was prejudiced by that error. We therefore vacate Meyer’s conviction and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

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[1] Since the time of her charges, the defendant has remarried. She uses a different last name but still accepts the use of “Meyer.” We continue to use “Meyer” for simplicity and for consistency with the case name.

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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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State v. Redden – 2022 UT App 14 – protective orders – enhanced penalties

2022 UT App 14

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellant,
v.
JOEL CHANCE REDDEN,
Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20200700-CA

Filed January 27, 2022

Fifth District Court, Cedar City Department

The Honorable Keith C. Barnes

No. 191500842

Sean D. Reyes and Karen A. Klucznik, Attorneys
for Appellant

Gary W. Pendleton, Attorney for Appellee

JUDGE JILL M. POHLMAN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and RYAN D. TENNEY concurred.

POHLMAN, Judge:

¶1       Joel Chance Redden committed two domestic violence offenses in October 2019, and the district court entered judgment on those convictions in January 2020. In the present case, Redden was charged with violating a protective order in October 2019 when he allegedly called his former girlfriend ten times. Later, the State sought to amend the information to add new charges for violating the protective order, enhanced from class A misdemeanors to third degree felonies based on the domestic violence enhancement statute. Redden opposed the enhancement, arguing that the new crimes had to be committed after his January 2020 convictions. The magistrate agreed with Redden and bound him over for trial on the new charges as class A misdemeanors. The State now appeals, arguing that it could enhance the charges so long as Redden is actually convicted of the new crimes within ten years after his January 2020 convictions. We agree with the State and therefore reverse.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2       Redden was subject to a protective order that prohibited him from contacting or communicating in any way with Michelle,[2] his former girlfriend. Notwithstanding this directive, Redden contacted Michelle on October 4, 2019, and threatened her. This conduct led the State to prosecute Redden in Weber County, and he pleaded guilty to stalking and violating a protective order, both third degree felonies. Redden entered his plea on December 4, 2019, and the judgment was entered on January 22, 2020 (the January 2020 convictions).

¶3       The present case arises out of Redden’s conduct on October 9, 2019. At that time, Redden was jailed in Texas on unrelated charges, and Michelle was visiting Cedar City, Utah. Beginning at 8:34 a.m., Redden allegedly telephoned Michelle ten times over the next three hours. According to Michelle, she answered the second call, which was a collect call from Redden from the Texas jail. Michelle accepted the call and spoke to Redden briefly. She told him, “Just don’t ever call me again,” and hung up. She also answered one of Redden’s later calls and recorded it, but she did not accept it to speak with him.

¶4       After Michelle reported these phone calls to law enforcement, the State filed an information against Redden in Iron County on December 30, 2019. It charged Redden with two counts of violation of a protective order for his October 9 conduct. It pursued both counts as third degree felonies enhanced from class A misdemeanors based on Redden’s conduct underlying his January 2020 convictions. Yet the State did not present evidence of the January 2020 convictions at a May 2020 preliminary hearing, and consequently, Redden moved to reduce both counts to class A misdemeanors. Although the State moved to continue the hearing, the magistrate denied that request. The magistrate then agreed with Redden and found the State had not met its burden on enhancing the misdemeanors to felony charges, and the magistrate instead bound Redden over on the two counts as class A misdemeanors.[3]

¶5       The State next moved for leave to amend the information. While it would still pursue the two misdemeanor counts (Counts 9 and 10) that had already been bound over for trial, the State sought to include eight additional counts of violation of a protective order, which would be enhanced to third degree felonies based on Redden’s prior convictions. Over Redden’s objection, the magistrate allowed the State to amend the information.

¶6       At the preliminary hearing on the eight additional charges, the State presented evidence to support those eight counts. And unlike in the first preliminary hearing, the State included evidence of the January 2020 convictions. Still, Redden argued that the eight counts could be bound over only as misdemeanors because the January 2020 convictions did not qualify as “prior conviction[s]” to the eight alleged offenses

committed on October 9, 2019. Relying on Utah Code section 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B), which applies when “the individual is convicted of the domestic violence offense . . . within 10 years after the individual is convicted of a qualifying domestic violence offense,” Utah Code Ann. § 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019), Redden asserted that to be enhanced to third degree felonies, the new offenses had to be committed within ten years after his January 2020 convictions. The State responded that even though “the prior conviction was for facts arising from October 4,” the enhancement provision in Utah Code section 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B) required only that Redden be convicted of the new crimes within ten years after his January 2020 convictions.

¶7       The magistrate agreed with Redden that the eight counts could not be enhanced to third degree felonies under the statute. He then determined that the State had presented sufficient evidence to establish probable cause “that the offenses of violation of [a] protective order were committed in eight instances.” Accordingly, the magistrate bound Redden over for trial on all ten counts as class A misdemeanors.

¶8       In light of the magistrate’s decision finding no probable cause that Redden had committed the eight third-degree felonies as charged in the amended information, the State “decline[d] to file a second amended information bringing the charges in line with the Court’s findings.” Instead, it moved to dismiss all charges in lieu of amending the information.

¶9       The magistrate granted the State’s request and dismissed all charges against Redden. The two original misdemeanor charges were dismissed pursuant to rule 25(a) of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the eight additional charges were dismissed pursuant to rule 7B(c).[4] The State now appeals the order of dismissal. See Utah Code Ann. § 77-18a-1(3)(a) (LexisNexis 2017) (“The prosecution may, as a matter of right, appeal from . . . (a) a final judgment of dismissal, including a dismissal of a felony information following a refusal to bind the defendant over for trial . . . .”); id. § 78A-4-103(2)(e) (2018) (providing that the Utah Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over appeals from criminal cases not involving first degree felonies).

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶10     The State contends that the magistrate misinterpreted the

enhancement statute when he refused to bind Redden over on the eight counts as third degree felonies. The decision to bind over a criminal defendant for trial typically presents a mixed question of law and fact to which we grant some deference to the magistrate. See State v. Prisbrey, 2020 UT App 172, ¶ 18, 479 P.3d 1126. But because the bindover decision here turned on a question of statutory interpretation, we review it for correctness. See State v. Thompson, 2020 UT App 148, ¶ 13, 476 P.3d 1017.

¶11 Rather than defending the magistrate’s decision on its merits, Redden contends that this court lacks jurisdiction over the State’s appeal, asserting that the State was not entitled to appeal from a dismissal order entered at its own request. “Whether appellate jurisdiction exists is a question of law which we decide in the first instance.” State v. Arghittu, 2015 UT App 22, ¶ 12, 343 P.3d 709 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. The State’s Argument on Appeal

¶12     The State argues that the magistrate erred in determining that the domestic violence enhancement statute did not apply to the eight additional counts that it raised in the amended information. According to the State, it could enhance those charges from class A misdemeanors to third degree felonies so long as Redden is ultimately convicted on the charges within ten years after his January 2020 convictions. Thus, the State argues, “until and unless the State fails to convict Redden of the new domestic violence charges before January 22, 2030, the [statute] allows the State to prosecute the new charges as third-degree felonies.” We agree.

¶13 When we interpret a statute, “we look first to the best evidence of a statute’s meaning, the plain language of the act, and we do not look beyond a statute’s plain language unless it is ambiguous.” State v. Thompson, 2020 UT App 148, ¶ 33, 476 P.3d 1017 (cleaned up). “Wherever possible, we give effect to every word of a statute, avoiding any interpretation which renders parts or words in a statute inoperative or superfluous.” State v. Stewart, 2018 UT 24, ¶ 12, 438 P.3d 515 (cleaned up).

¶14 The crime that Redden is alleged to have committed— violating a protective order—is a class A misdemeanor but is subject to increased penalties in accordance with the domestic violence enhancement statute. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-108 (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). That enhancement statute states, in relevant part,

(2) An individual who is convicted of a domestic violence offense is: . . .

(c) guilty of a felony of the third degree if:

(i) the domestic violence offense described in this Subsection (2) is designated by law as a class A misdemeanor; and

(ii)(A) the domestic violence offense described in this Subsection (2) is committed within 10 years after the individual is convicted of a qualifying domestic violence offense that is not a criminal mischief offense; or

(B) the individual is convicted of the domestic violence offense described in this Subsection (2) within 10 years after the individual is convicted of a qualifying domestic violence offense that is not a criminal mischief offense.

Id. § 77-36-1.1 (emphases added). As we read this plain language, section 77-36-1.1(2)(c) allows the State to enhance a class A misdemeanor charge to a third degree felony when a defendant either “commit[s]” or “is convicted of” the current crime “within 10 years after” the defendant “is convicted of a qualifying domestic violence offense.” Id. Thus, we agree with the State’s reading of the statute. Redden, tellingly, has not offered an alternative interpretation.

¶15 Further, we agree with the State’s application of the statute to this case. The parties do not dispute that Redden’s January 2020 convictions constitute “a qualifying domestic violence offense” under the statute.[5] Because it is still possible that Redden could be “convicted of” the eight current charges “within 10 years” after he was convicted of qualifying domestic offenses in January 2020, section 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B) permits the State to enhance the eight counts to third degree felonies. The magistrate erred in concluding otherwise. The magistrate appears to have reasoned that subsection 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B) applies only if the defendant’s current charges stem from conduct that occurred after the defendant was convicted of the qualifying domestic offense. But this interpretation would render subsection 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(A) superfluous because that subsection expressly addresses such circumstances—when the current offense “is committed” after the conviction on the qualifying domestic offense. We will not read the statute in a way that would conflate both subsections and make one subsection inoperative. See Stewart, 2018 UT 24, ¶ 12.

¶16 In sum, we conclude that for the enhancement under subsection 77-36-1.1(2)(c)(ii)(B) to apply, the State has until January 22, 2030, to obtain a conviction against Redden for the eight counts. We therefore reverse the magistrate’s decision binding Redden over on these counts as class A misdemeanors and direct that Redden be bound over on them as third degree felonies.

  1. Redden’s Procedural Arguments

¶17 While Redden concedes that the State’s reading of the enhancement statute is appropriate, he nevertheless argues that the State’s appeal is improper, given that the State itself moved for the order of dismissal. In Redden’s view, the State could have petitioned for interlocutory review of the magistrate’s second bindover decision, but it was not allowed to “circumvent the appellate court’s discretion to grant or deny petitions for review by requesting a dismissal and then relying on the statutory provision granting [the] prosecution an appeal of right from a final judgment of dismissal.”[6] Redden thus asserts that this court does not have jurisdiction over this appeal.

¶18     Redden’s argument is foreclosed by precedent. In State v. Gomez, 722 P.2d 747 (Utah 1986), the trial court agreed with the defendant that the charges should be reduced to a lesser offense. Id. at 748. In response, the State refused to amend the information to conform to the court’s ruling and instead urged the court to dismiss the information. Id. The court then dismissed the information and the State appealed that dismissal. Id. at 748–49. On appeal, the Utah Supreme Court addressed the defendant’s threshold argument that the State could not use the order of dismissal, which the State itself requested, as a means of obtaining review of “a decision that would not otherwise be appealable as a matter of right.” Id. at 749. The supreme court explained that “the trial court’s determination that the charges should be reduced to an offense carrying a lesser penalty not charged in the original information prevented the State from proceeding on the original charges.” Id. Importantly, “[t]he effect of the trial court’s ruling was to block prosecution and, in effect, to dismiss the original charges.” Id. The supreme court concluded that, under these circumstances, “the State properly suggested that the trial court formally dismiss the information and then appealed from a final judgment of dismissal.” Id. (cleaned up). This court reached the same conclusion on similar facts in State v. Arghittu, 2015 UT App 22, 343 P.3d 709. Id. ¶¶ 15– 17 & n.4 (allowing the State to appeal after it had voluntarily moved for dismissal after the magistrate bound the defendant over on only a lesser and uncharged offense).[7]

¶19 Like Gomez, the magistrate’s decision binding Redden over on eight new misdemeanors rather than the charged eight third-degree felonies had the “effect of . . . block[ing] prosecution and . . . dismiss[ing] the [eight] original charges.” See Gomez, 722 P.2d at 479. The State therefore acted properly in moving to dismiss the information and then appealing from “a final judgment of dismissal.” See Utah Code Ann. § 77-18a-1(3)(a) (LexisNexis 2017) (“The prosecution may, as a matter of right, appeal from . . . (a) a final judgment of dismissal, including a dismissal of a felony information following a refusal to bind the defendant over for trial . . . .”); see also Gomez, 722 P.2d at 479; Arghittu, 2015 UT App 22, ¶¶ 15–17. Thus, Redden’s challenge to appellate jurisdiction is unavailing.

¶20     Lastly, in two ways, Redden challenges the fairness of the State’s actions. He first suggests that the State’s filing of the eight new charges against him violated the principles set forth in State v. Brickey, 714 P.2d 644 (Utah 1986). In Brickey, the Utah Supreme Court held that a prosecutor is prohibited from “refiling criminal charges earlier dismissed for insufficient evidence unless the prosecutor can show that new or previously unavailable evidence has surfaced or that other good cause justifies refiling.” Id. at 647 (emphasis added). Redden’s reliance on Brickey is misplaced, however, because no charges have been refiled against him. Rather, the State amended the information to add eight new charges that had not been addressed at the first preliminary hearing. The rules of criminal procedure allow such amendments “at any time before trial has commenced so long as the substantial rights of the defendant are not prejudiced.” Utah R. Crim. P. 4(d). The court also held a second preliminary hearing to address the eight additional charges. See id. (“If an additional or different offense is charged, the defendant has the right to a preliminary hearing on that offense . . . .”). Moreover, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, a prosecutor’s initial charging decision “should not freeze future conduct” and “does not necessarily define the extent of the legitimate interest in prosecution.” United States v. Goodwin, 457 U.S. 368, 380, 382 (1982); accord State v. Finlayson, 2014 UT App 282, ¶ 23 n.11, 362 P.3d 926.

¶21 Second, Redden generically complains that he pleaded guilty to the charges in Weber County as “a global resolution of the charges” related to Michelle and that he did not realize the resulting convictions “would later be asserted as a basis for enhancing additional charges” filed in Iron County. Although he suggests that his due process rights have therefore been violated, he has not established his lack of understanding as a factual matter. Nor has he established that he was not actually afforded all the process to which he was entitled under the law.

¶22 For the foregoing reasons, Redden’s counterarguments are unpersuasive.

CONCLUSION

¶23 Having rejected Redden’s contention that we lack jurisdiction over this appeal, we conclude that the State’s appeal is well taken and that the magistrate erred in binding Redden over on the eight new counts as class A misdemeanors. Accordingly, we reverse the magistrate’s bindover and dismissal orders and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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

[1] “At a preliminary hearing, the magistrate should view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution and resolve all inferences in favor of the prosecution.” State v. Arghittu, 2015 UT App 22, ¶ 2 n.2, 343 P.3d 709 (cleaned up). Because this appeal arises from a preliminary hearing, we recite the background facts with that standard in mind.

[2] A pseudonym.

[3] The State does not contest this bindover ruling on appeal.

[4] Rule 25(a) states, “In its discretion, for substantial cause and in furtherance of justice, the court may, either on its own initiative or upon application of either party, order an information or indictment dismissed.” Utah R. Crim. P. 25(a). Rule 7B(c) provides, “If the magistrate does not find probable cause to believe the crime charged has been committed or the defendant committed it, the magistrate must dismiss the information and discharge the defendant. The magistrate may enter findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order of dismissal. The dismissal and discharge do not preclude the state from instituting a subsequent prosecution for the same offense.” Id. R. 7B(c).

[5] As used in the statute, the term “domestic violence offense” includes “commission or attempt to commit” stalking and violating a protective order when committed “by one cohabitant against another.” Utah Code Ann. § 77-36-1(4)(j), (l) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019). The term “cohabitant” includes, among other things, individuals who “reside[] or [have] resided in the same residence” or who are or were “in a consensual sexual relationship.” Id. § 77-36-1(1); id. § 78B-7-102(2)(f), (g) (2018).

[6] Rule 5 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure sets forth the procedure regarding discretionary appeals from interlocutory orders. The Utah Code allows the prosecution an appeal, as a matter of right, from a final judgment of dismissal. Utah Code Ann. § 77-18a-1(3)(a) (LexisNexis 2017) (“The prosecution may, as a matter of right, appeal from . . . (a) a final judgment of dismissal, including a dismissal of a felony information following a refusal to bind the defendant over for trial . . . .”).

[7] Redden relies on State v. Waddoups, 712 P.2d 223 (Utah 1985), to support his position. In that case, the trial court granted a defense motion to suppress certain evidence, and the State chose to dismiss the information and attempted to appeal the dismissal in order to challenge the suppression ruling. Id. at 223. The supreme court concluded that the State’s appeal was improper under those facts. Id. at 224. The case at hand, however, is much more like Gomez than Waddoups, and Redden overlooks that the supreme court in Gomez specifically decided that the facts of Waddoups were “quite different” given that Waddoups did not involve the trial court reducing the original charges. See State v. Gomez, 722 P.2d 747, 749 (Utah 1986).

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