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Tag: evidence

What Would I Say, if I Were a Judge or Commissioner Hearing a Protective Order Request Case and I Denied the Request for the Protective Order?

I would say this:

By law I cannot grant a request for a protective order unless a preponderance of the evidence supports the request.

If the request lacks the support of a preponderance of the evidence, then the law prohibits me from granting it, even if I desired to grant it in spite of the law. I have no desire to act in spite of the law.

It is tempting to grant a protective order unsupported by a preponderance of evidence on a “better safe than sorry” basis, but that temptation’s ultimate end is, as is true of all temptations, evil. Abusing the law to provide protection from ostensible cohabitant abuse would be rank hypocrisy.

Finding a petitioner has not met the burden of proof does not mean either 1) the petitioner is or is not, in fact, a victim of cohabitant abuse; or 2) the respondent did or did not, in fact, commit cohabitant abuse.

If any protective order petitioner is in fact a victim of cohabitant abuse, then I suggest that the petitioner take all reasonable, necessary, and legally permissible measures available to the petitioner for the petitioner’s protection. A protective order is certainly not the only or the most effective protective measure a cohabitant abuse victim can or should take. A sheet of paper or an image on a screen cannot deflect fists, feet, clubs, knives, or bullets. A protective order is only as effective as it is duly enforced, but unfortunately, “When seconds count, the police are just minutes away.” For your own sake be resourceful. Do not become a victim of your own inaction.

If a protective order respondent is, in fact, innocent of the allegations made against the respondent, then I extend to all such respondents this court’s apologies for the stigma that may, and almost certainly will, attach to and dog the respondent for who knows how long as the result of being falsely accused. Fraudulently sought protective orders are all too common, and everyone in the legal system knows it.

If a protective order respondent is, in fact, a cohabitant abuse perpetrator whom the preponderance of evidence standard unwittingly abetted, then I hope and suggest you seize on this opportunity to sin no more. You may not be so lucky next time.

The first courtroom I set foot in as a lawyer had these two statements written on its walls: “Know thyself. – Socrates” and “Control thyself. – Cicero”. I commend this advice both to the petitioner and to the respondent.

Having reviewed the admissible evidence presented to me on the petitioner’s request for a protective order and having found that the petitioner has not met the preponderance of evidence burden of proof, the request must, therefore, necessarily be and is denied.

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

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Why Your Witness May Not Be As Good As You Think By Braxton Mounteer

I recently went to trial with my boss for a divorce case. One of the things that stuck out to me was that quite often the witnesses people call in support of their claims and defenses aren’t nearly as helpful as they were expected to be. Why?

1)      Proximity of the witness to the parties or to the facts. I don’t mean physical proximity, but I do mean their personal relationships to the parties or to the events witnessed. These witnesses could be a mother, father, brother, sister, best friend, etc. Courts expect these kinds of people to be loyal, even to the point of a) being hopelessly biased and/or b) lying to help their friends/family members. Your mom’s not expected to be the most neutral or objective witness. Your brother droning on about how your spouse is the devil and you are a saint isn’t all that credible. I’m not saying such witnesses are worthless (you don’t want your mom or brother testifying against you, for example), but they aren’t the most helpful of witnesses.

2)      Your witness’s testimony isn’t engaging enough. A witness who testifies that he/she has never seen you treat your kids poorly is a witness who isn’t saying you treat your kids well. Yawn. A compelling witness is someone who witnessed you selflessly coaching the kids’ soccer team for years and who made a great impact for good in the team members’ lives. You want a teacher who can testify that you came to every parent-teacher conference and read with your child 20 minutes every night. You need that police officer who witnessed and arrested your spouse for trying to beat you with a bat. You need the boss who testifies what you are paid.

3)      Your witness didn’t witness anything first-hand. Your witness can’t get on the stand and tell the judge what he heard someone else say. That’s called hearsay, and with few exceptions, it’s not admissible as evidence.

What if you don’t have any witnesses beyond your immediate circle of friends and family? You can still call them as witnesses, and if they are credible people who don’t know a whole lot, you likely should call them as witnesses. No witnesses in your corner looks worse than mediocre witnesses who can testify believably of a few things.

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

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We Can Call It the “Presumption of Guilt Act”

Did you see this in the news in Utah (from the Salt Lake Tribune)?

A Utah man never hit his wife — until he tried to kill her. But how he treated her was a warning sign.

Saying that the proposed “coercive control” legislation is needed because of the “failure of the courts” to detect crime makes no sense. It’s not a judge’s job to detect crime. It’s the police and prosecutors’ jobs. The judge applies the law to the facts and the evidence and renders judgment.

Moreover, by its nature crime occurs in the shadows. It’s going to happen no matter how much anti-crime legislation is passed. Otherwise stated, crime does not occur due to a lack of laws on the books. Legislation might help to punish crime, but isn’t much a deterrent to crime (and never has been).

The idea that we “must work toward” zero domestic violence is absurd. Domestic violence has always occurred and always will in an imperfect world. Thus, domestic violence is going to occur regardless of how many laws are passed “in opposition to” it.

Proposed statutes like this can “work” only by having the public and law enforcement and the courts indulge in a mass group delusion.

Laws like this will result in a presumption of guilt as a way of getting rid of the pesky preponderance of evidence standard of proof and letting “better safe than sorry” and “abundance of caution” and “guilty until proven innocent” rule. Miraculously, this new not-a-real-standard standard will create a new class of abuser (i.e., those who self-proclaimed victims subjectively deem to be abusers and that the courts will treat as abusers unless and until the presumed abuser proves otherwise).

Perversely, proponents of such a bill will claim that it is reducing domestic violence by increasing arrests, prosecutions, and convictions–but at the cost of throwing the presumption of innocence and a preponderance of evidence and or beyond a reasonable doubt standards out the window. Not just thrown out the window, but shot at high velocity out the window beyond retrieval. This would create a net that will end up snaring innocent people who will be falsely accused and convicted in the name of “better” detection and prevention.

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

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Rejecting Fact for Faith: the Inexplicable and Inexcusable Silencing of the PGAL’s Child Client

When a PGAL (private guardian ad litem) is appointed to represent children in a child custody dispute in a Utah divorce case, it would sure be good to know what the PGAL and the children actually said to each other (not merely believe, not trust any second-hand source’s claims as to what the children purportedly said, but know what the children said) by having a by having an audio and/or sound-and-video recording of the what the PGAL and the children actually said to each other. I am not aware of any evidence that proves or so much as suggests that having such a record is (is, not may be, but is) prejudicial or harmful to anyone.

The reasons why should be obvious.

I don’t have to believe you if you tell me that your fingerprints are not on the murder weapon. In contrast, I cannot deny your fingerprints aren’t on the murder weapon, when you show me the murder weapon has none of your fingerprints on it.

If you had an eye witness who could provide you with an alibi, you would need the witness himself to testify. You couldn’t say to the judge or jury, “Trust me, I have an eye witness, and if he were here, he’d tell you that Mickey shot Jerry, not me.” The only way to know if such a witness really exists and is not just a convenient figment of your imagination is to hear from the witness himself. Indeed, if you tried to speak for a phantom witness, that would be inadmissible hearsay. Objective fact is self-evidently more probative than unverified stories and claims. This is why we don’t rely on hearsay when we can hear first-hand from the witness.

You wouldn’t want people trying to put words in your mouth and misrepresenting what you do and do not say. It’s why the rule against hearsay exists, and for good reason. It’s why the public rose up and demanded bodycams for police (because the police were caught lying so much and chronically violating innocent people’s rights in the process). It’s why we need verifiable proof that medicine actually works and aircraft can safely takeoff, fly, and land before we use them.

Yet PGALs in Utah all but universally refuse to interview children on the record and oppose children being questioned by anyone else on the record. Instead, PGALs expect that everyone believe 1) what the PGAL claims to have asked the children in the PGAL’s interviews with them and 2) what the PGAL claims the children said in response 3) and to believe the PGALs without the children being subject to cross-examination. “Believe the PGAL on what basis?,” you may ask. Merely being appointed as a PGAL. That’s like expecting one to believe a witness in court merely because the witness swore an oath to tell the truth (which would be as unreasonable as it is irresponsible). Being a PGAL doesn’t render one incapable of lying or incapable of misperceiving or misremembering details. Being a PGAL free the PGAL from personal biases and prejudices that hamper impartiality and sound judgment.[1]

Even if someone subjectively believed a PGAL were infallible and could never lie and never misperceive reality, subjective belief would not make it so. It could not make it so. Subjective belief is inherently not, and inherently can never be, superior to objectively verifiable fact. 

Yet the courts indulge—and knowingly indulge—in this kind of thing all the time. “Trust that the PGAL is telling us the truth because he/she is a PGAL,” or “We don’t need to hear from the children directly, the PGAL speaks for them.” It would be one thing if a PGAL claimed to speak for a child client and the child client at least went on the record to verify, “Yes, what the PGAL just proffered is correct,” but we don’t even have that. Once a PGAL is appointed, the child is rarely—if ever—heard from himself/herself. Even when the child is willing to testify. I’m not kidding. I’m not exaggerating.

Sometimes we don’t have objective proof. Sometimes all we have to go on is believing (or not believing) someone’s word. But belief is plainly not the highest standard of proof (thank goodness). When we can rely on fact over faith, we are morally, intellectually, and legally obligated to do so. 

When accuracy and truth matter (and when do they not?) and if and when we can hear directly from that particular person himself/herself, no one should “trust” what anyone (not just you–anyone) says someone else allegedly said.

Any PGAL who would assert, “I have or could have objective verification for my claims, but I refuse to provide such verification; take my word for it,” is a PGAL no one can be obligated to believe. I ask sincerely: how can any PGAL or judge or commissioner who believes that the PGAL serves to silence a child client’s own voice be trusted?

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


[1] Indeed, if we took every word of the PGAL as gospel, we wouldn’t need a judge to do anything other than rubber stamp what the PGAL says. If the PGAL says the children claim Dad beat them, well then, that’s what the children said—after all, the PGAL says so. No need to inquire into whether the children were coached, coerced, brainwashed, or chose to lie. And because the law in Utah is construed to mean that children “represented” by PGALs are prohibited from speaking for themselves, no inquiry with the children on the record will ever take place. Does that look like “fact” finding, like due process, like a just and equitable process to you?

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You Can’t Tell What The Judge Is Thinking By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

I recently accompanied my boss to the trial of a divorce case. If I had had to place a bet on what the judge was thinking at given moment or what the rulings would have been during the trial or at the end, I would have left the courtroom much poorer. One of the things that struck me most about trial was my inability to determine the importance a judge gives to the evidence and to witness testimony. I could not consistently predict which way the judge was leaning at any given moment. But it’s not solely a matter of my inexperience with the legal system. My boss (who has considerable trial experience) told me he encounters the same thing.

We believe this is intentional on the judge’s part, that judges deliberately wear a poker face (some better than others). If a judge expressively reacted to a piece of evidence or to testimony, it might give a false (or true) indication that the judge is favoring one party over the other.

An actual trial is not like the movies and television shows would have you believe (at least at a divorce trial isn’t). There was no audible gasp from one side or the other when a piece of evidence was entered. The lawyers don’t (at least not typically) swagger around the court room cracking wise or orating so as to bring the room to tears. It really was just the evidence and argument from one party versus evidence and argument of the other.

Now a judge being inscrutable is not to say the judge sits stone-faced and silent until the trial ended. The judge can and usually will make clear and candid statements occasionally during the trial. Sometimes the judge will ask a witness questions of his or her own, but sparingly (judges are discouraged from doing too much of their own questioning). And the judge obviously must rule on objections raised during the questioning of witnesses too. During recesses, the judges and attorneys and sometimes even the parties and witnesses may chat about sports or local news to unwind a bit from the tension that builds up over the course of the trial. Some judges will essentially let the lawyers go until the time runs out. Other judges may inform the parties and their lawyers whether the direction they are taking the case in isn’t all that useful to the court in reaching its ultimate decision.

The notion of “reasonable minds can differ” stands out in stark relief at a trial. Sometimes what the lawyer tries to persuade the court to do and what the court decided are the same, but other times what the court did with the evidence can really surprise you. Keep that in mind when you’re convinced that the judge could not possibly rule any way but the way you favor. The better you understand all the possible arguments, the more accurately, reasonably, and persuasively you can make yours.

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2024 UT App 43 – domestic violence appeal

State v. Arce – 2024 UT App 43

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. JOSE FELIPE ARCE, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220006-CA Filed March 28, 2024

First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. MaynardNo. 191100762

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant, assisted by law student Ryder Seamons[1]

Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        A domestic dispute ensued on an emotional evening after Jose Felipe Arce had returned home from attending the birth of a child he believed he fathered as a result of an affair. Arce does not dispute that an argument occurred. He denies, however, that he hit or choked his spouse (Wife). This appeal centers on Wife’s statements near the time of the event and her complete recantation at trial. Arce claims numerous errors, including that the trial court should not have allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury, a deputy should not have been allowed to vouch for a particular version of Wife’s testimony, the State and a witness should not have used the word “victim” 29 times, and these errors cumulatively prejudiced him. Although we do not endorse the approach taken by the trial court or the parties, we affirm the convictions.

BACKGROUND

¶2           The State charged Arce with, and the jury convicted him on, one count of aggravated assault (domestic violence) and five counts of domestic violence in the presence of a child. At the center of this appeal are the different versions of events as related by Wife. We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict. See State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 2, 10 P.3d 346.

Alleged Assault and Wife’s Statements in the Subsequent Hours and

Days

¶3           In July 2019, Arce visited the hospital for the birth of a child whom both Arce and Wife believed he may have fathered with another woman. Wife described the day as an emotional one filled with tears. When Arce returned from the hospital, the couple decided to take their kids swimming at a hot springs resort. The couple talked about the difficult situation on the drive there, with more crying from Wife. On the drive home, their conversation escalated into an argument while the children slept in the back seat. After Arce asked for forgiveness, Wife said she had forgiven him for “many things” but “this was just too much.” Arce pulled the car over, and Wife said that the two “couldn’t be together anymore.” Wife later told police and neighbors that after pulling over, Arce hit and choked her.

¶4          Arce then drove the family home, and he told the children to go inside. Wife later told police and neighbors that, as they continued arguing, Arce hit her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled her hair, tried to choke her, and threatened to hit her with a beer bottle.

¶5          At this point, Wife ran to her neighbor’s (Neighbor) home. Neighbor could hear Arce yelling as she opened the door to find Wife out of breath, shaking, and crying. Wife was in a t-shirt with no pants. Neighbor and her husband (Neighbor’s Husband) believed Wife was seeking safety. Wife told them Arce was trying to hurt her. She also told the couple she wanted Arce out of the house. She then recounted the earlier fight that had happened during the drive home, including that after arriving home Arce had hit and kicked her and tried to choke her. Neighbor did not see any injuries on Wife. Neighbor’s Husband said that he saw “a red mark kind of on her collarbone on her left side.”

¶6          Neighbor’s Husband, a deputy sheriff, called police, who arrived fewer than ten minutes later. The responding officer (Deputy) interviewed Wife at Neighbor’s home that evening. Deputy testified that Wife appeared “extremely distraught,” “frantic,” and “emotionally distressed” and that she continuously wiped her eyes and nose from crying. During the interview, Wife told Deputy that Arce both struck and choked her. She also recounted that after returning home, Arce dragged her out of the car by her hair, threatened to hit her with a beer bottle, choked her, and slapped her. Deputy observed that the area under Wife’s right eye was “somewhat swollen” and that she had “some sort of reddish mark” on her collarbone that looked like it was beginning to bruise.

¶7          By that time, Arce had left the scene. Wife signed a request for a no-contact order and, with her children, went to emergency housing that the Deputy arranged. Wife also completed a lethality assessment. In the assessment, Wife indicated that she thought Arce might try to kill her. In an additional comment section, Wife noted that “having [Arce] at the home was a concern of safety for her.”

¶8          The following day, a police officer (Detective) interviewed Wife at her work. Wife again recounted the events, including Arce choking her, slapping her, grabbing her hair, throwing her to the ground, and threatening to hit her with a bottle. Wife also filled out a written statement during the interview with Detective recounting these same allegations. The top of the statement gave the following warning, “You are notified that the statements you are about to make may be presented to a magistrate or a judge in lieu of your sworn testimony at a preliminary examination. Any false statements you make and that you do not believe to be true may subject you to criminal punishment as a Class A Misdemeanor.” Wife signed the statement.

¶9          That same night, Deputy interviewed Arce by phone. Arce explained that he and Wife had taken the children to the resort “to have a good day” but Wife kept bringing up the infidelity and birth of the baby, so the two argued. Arce said that during the argument, he went through Wife’s phone, saw messages from another man, and asked, “[W]ho the f*** is this person?” When asked if he hit or choked Wife, Arce responded that he did not recall. Arce did, however, say that there was a miscommunication between them and that there was “some pushing and shoving.”

Wife’s Recantation and Testimony at Trial

¶10 The same day that Detective interviewed Wife, Deputy listened to a voicemail from Wife asking that all charges be dropped. When Wife later spoke with Deputy on the phone, she again asked that the charges be dropped. Wife explained that Arce “had a good job and that she needed help with the five children.”

¶11 At trial, Wife testified consistently with the prior statements she had made to law enforcement and her neighbors, however, she insisted that she made up the allegations of domestic violence against Arce. From the stand, Wife said, “This is why I wanted to just come up here because I hear all the charges and it’s really very selfish of me, you know. So this is why I’m sitting up here and I’m saying what really happened.” Wife testified that all the events occurred as she explained to law enforcement and the neighbors but that Arce never hit or choked her. Wife testified that after telling Arce they could not be together anymore, she told him to take her home, and he did. Wife testified that she opened the car door and sat on the edge of her seat while they continued arguing and yelling at one another but no physical altercation occurred.

¶12 When the State began asking her questions about police arriving the night of the incident and what she told them, the court stopped the questioning and excused the jury. The court explained to Wife that she had a right not to incriminate herself and that doing so would open her up to prosecution. The State asserted several times, “We won’t charge her.” The State also served Wife with a written notice of use immunity for purposes of the trial.[2] And the court provided her with the opportunity to speak with an attorney. Subsequently, Wife was appointed counsel.

¶13 Following a recess, the State asked that Wife be declared a hostile witness, allowing it to ask her leading questions, which the court granted. After speaking with his client, Wife’s counsel advised the court that Wife would be exercising her Fifth Amendment right moving forward. The State argued that the immunity it had offered Wife would protect her and that it was not the State’s intent “to ask the Court to hold [Wife] in this case in contempt” for refusing to testify. Wife’s counsel argued that the notice of use immunity was inadequate to protect her because it expressly did not grant immunity against a future perjury prosecution. The State again asked the court to treat Wife as a hostile witness. Arce’s counsel objected, arguing that the State knew weeks in advance that Wife might invoke her Fifth Amendment right. The State argued that knowing what Wife would do for weeks in advance was “a little bit of a stretch” and that its grant of use immunity was sufficient.

¶14        During further argument over whether to allow the State to treat Wife as a hostile witness, the State again said it would not seek to have the court hold her in contempt. The court ultimately granted the State’s request and received affirmation again from the State that it would not ask the court to hold Wife in contempt if she refused to testify.

¶15        The next day, the State retracted its written immunity offer and explained that it planned to ask Wife questions to which she could “choose to invoke the Fifth or to respond.” Wife’s counsel objected, arguing, “[T]he State’s going to try to . . . present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth . . . . [T]hat’s just them trying to testify to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court disagreed, explaining that anything the State said was not evidence and that Wife could not make a “blanket” invocation of her Fifth Amendment right.

¶16 When Wife took the stand again, she invoked the Fifth Amendment 47 times in response to the State’s questions.[3] The State’s questions included asking Wife about the same things she had addressed the day before, prior to invoking her constitutional right to silence. Arce’s counsel did not object to or seek to limit the State’s leading questions or Wife’s invocations; neither did he request a mistrial.

Other Testimony at Trial

¶17 During the trial, the State called Neighbor, Neighbor’s Husband, Deputy, and Detective to the stand; each recounted the events and gave consistent testimony of the statements Wife made to them concerning the events during the evening in question— including the physical abuse she allegedly experienced at the hands of Arce.

¶18 During Deputy’s examination, the State asked, “And so ultimately what did your investigation lead you to believe happened that night?” Defense counsel made no objection. Deputy responded, “Based off all my observations and interview, I believe that the victim had been struck and choked and that there was a domestic violence assault that occurred.” The State then asked, “And I just want to emphasize, why is it that you believed that this truly happened?” Defense counsel again made no objection. Deputy answered,

I believe it truly happened given a number of things. Mainly, when I spoke to [Wife], she appeared to be honest and genuine in the emotion that she was describing things with was clearly emotional distress, upset that I’ve seen. And not every case is the same. I’ve seen other people who have been victims of assault act similar, so that’s why I believed it. She appeared to be honest and genuine.

¶19 During Detective’s testimony, the State moved to admit into evidence Wife’s written statement that was given under penalty of perjury, which the court allowed.

¶20 The State also called two expert witnesses. A clinical psychologist testified about patterns of domestic violence and that individuals experiencing abuse frequently stay in the relationship and/or recant their previous stories. And a pediatric nurse practitioner testified about strangulation, including that in over 50% of strangulation cases there are no visible injuries.

¶21 Throughout the trial, the State, Deputy, and Detective referred to Wife as “the victim” 29 times. And the State and its witnesses—primarily the clinical psychologist—used the term “victim” or “victims” generally an additional 45 times. The State also referred to Wife as the “alleged victim,” primarily during jury selection but also sporadically throughout the trial.

Closing Arguments and Verdict

¶22        In closing arguments, the State argued that the jury should believe Wife’s original statements to her neighbors and police as those were made instinctually to keep her family safe from a threat rather than out of “selfish[ness] or insincer[ity].” The defense argued that Wife had every reason to hate Arce but she wanted to set the record straight about her lies concerning the events of that night and that the State’s case fell apart without her lies.

¶23        During deliberation, the jury asked for access to the State’s “questions on day 2 to [Wife] when she pled the fifth.” The court did not grant the request.

¶24        The jury convicted Arce on all charges. Arce now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶25 Arce raises three issues on appeal. First, Arce argues that the trial court incorrectly allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury. We give trial courts “broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, including lay witness testimony, and will disturb [a trial court’s] ruling only for abuse of discretion.” State v. Perea, 2013 UT 68, ¶ 31, 322 P.3d 624 (cleaned up). But the trial court must correctly interpret and apply the law. Id. ¶ 30. We review “the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence” for correctness. Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 15, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023).

¶26 Second, Arce argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel when his counsel (1) did not seek to limit or remediate the continued questioning of Wife by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction; (2) failed to object to Deputy improperly opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s report the night of the incident; and (3) failed to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times during the trial. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

¶27 Finally, Arce argues that under the cumulative error doctrine, the evidentiary error and ineffective assistance of counsel Arce received should undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial. “We will reverse a jury verdict or sentence only if the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” State v. Lopez, 2019 UT App 11, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 950 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

  1. Evidentiary Ruling

¶28 Arce argues that the trial court improperly overruled Wife’s counsel’s objection to the State questioning Wife despite knowing that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Here, the trial court did not expressly say why it allowed the State, knowing Wife would invoke her constitutional privilege, to continually examine Wife. After Wife met with counsel and determined that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right moving forward, the State asked the court to declare Wife a hostile witness and allow the State to continue examining her with leading questions. Wife’s counsel objected to declaring her hostile, arguing that the State already knew she would invoke her right for each question, which would allow the State, in Wife’s counsel’s words, to “present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth” and to offer testimony “to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court responded that “anything [the State] says isn’t evidence, so it doesn’t matter.” And Wife’s counsel responded that the court should not allow it precisely because the State’s questions would not be evidence. The court disagreed and determined that the State could ask questions and that Wife could invoke her right to every question if she wanted to but she had to testify “if it [had] nothing to do [with a topic] that would incriminate her.” The court further determined that Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right could not be invoked in a blanket fashion and that she would have to invoke it for each question, as there may be some she could answer.

¶29 The State argues that regardless of the court’s reasoning, the court did not err because Wife waived her privilege by testifying earlier and recanting her story.[4] We note that the State did not make this argument during trial. Alternatively, the State argues that Wife never had the privilege to begin with because the State provided her with immunity.[5]

¶30 Notwithstanding each parties’ arguments, our review of the record indicates that Arce did not preserve this issue. It is “well within our prerogative to raise a preservation issue on our own initiative when it provides an alternative basis for affirmance, even if the State failed to brief the preservation argument.” State v. Malo, 2020 UT 42, ¶ 20 n.7, 469 P.3d 982. In Cook Associates, Inc. v. Warnick, 664 P.2d 1161 (Utah 1983), our supreme court confronted “[w]hether an objection by one party properly preserves an objection on appeal as to another party.” Id. at 1164. The supreme court followed what “[v]irtually every other jurisdiction that has considered the question has concluded,” which is that “an objection . . . by one or more parties at trial does not inure to the benefit of other parties who do not join in the objection.” Id. at 1164–65. In State v. Calliham, 2002 UT 86, 55 P.3d 573, two brothers charged with murder were tried together. Id. ¶¶ 1–3. Following their convictions, one brother (Brother 1) appealed. Id. ¶¶ 18–19. As part of his appeal, Brother 1 argued that the trial court’s decision to admit specific evidence was an error that violated his constitutional rights. Id. ¶ 32. However, our supreme court held that this issue was not preserved for appeal, as it was the other brother (Brother 2) who had objected—an objection which Brother 1 did not join at trial. Id. ¶ 33. “[Brother 1] did not join in [Brother 2’s] objections on the record or make any objection of his own,” thus preventing him from claiming on appeal that it prejudiced him or undermined his constitutional rights. Id.

¶31 Similarly, in the case before us, Arce was not the one who objected to Wife taking the stand, knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right for every question—it was Wife’s counsel who made the objection. Arce did not join that objection.[6]

Therefore, as in Calliham, Arce has not preserved the right to now claim on appeal that the court erred in its decision to allow Wife to testify, which in turn allowed the jury to hear her invocations 47 times.[7]

¶32        And the issue needed to be “preserved in order to give the trial court an opportunity to address the claimed error, and if appropriate, correct it.” Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, ¶ 11, 285 P.3d 1133 (cleaned up). Here, the trial court had no such opportunity. It is readily evident from our review of the record that the trial court was not focused on the impact these Fifth Amendment issues would have on Arce. Instead, the trial court ruled on this issue through the lens of its impact on Wife. Had Arce objected, the trial court may have fully engaged in an analysis of whether Wife’s Fifth Amendment right was waived or abandoned as the State suggests. But Arce made no such objection, and therefore the court engaged in no such analysis.

¶33        “As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal,” and it is “well-established” that this “preservation requirement applies to every claim, including constitutional questions.” Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 48, 443 P.3d 1250 (cleaned up). Despite Arce’s arguments that he preserved this issue, the record does not support his assertions, as “a party must raise [the issue] before the [trial] court specifically, in a timely manner, and with support by evidence and relevant legal authority, such that the issue has been presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on it.” Id. (cleaned up). As discussed, the record does not reflect an objection from Arce on the issue but instead from Wife, which did not allow the court to review the issue as it pertains to Arce. Therefore, the issue is not properly preserved, and we do not consider the merits of his claim.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶34        “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must meet the two-prong Strickland test: (1) counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice.” State v. Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9, 454 P.3d 862 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687–88 (1984)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 803 (Utah 2020). “[D]eficient performance is not determined in a vacuum; rather, it involves asking whether the strategy [counsel] employed was that of a reasonable, competent lawyer in the real-time context” of a trial. State v. Wilkes, 2020 UT App 175, ¶ 24, 479 P.3d 1142, cert. denied, 485 P.3d 944 (Utah 2021). “However, even where a court cannot conceive of a sound strategic reason for counsel’s challenged conduct, it does not automatically follow that counsel was deficient. . . . [T]he ultimate question is always whether, considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. And a defendant establishes prejudice by showing “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” State v. Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 8, 501 P.3d 1205 (cleaned up). “That is, the defendant’s showing must undermine our confidence in the outcome.” Id. (cleaned up). The impact of such alleged errors must “be a demonstrable reality.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶35        “Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be met to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, we need not always address both prongs.” Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). “And if it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice that course should be followed.” Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 7 (cleaned up). Given the likelihood that similar events to those of this case can and will arise before the trial courts of this state, we address counsel’s alleged deficient performance, although we ultimately determine that Arce’s claims fail for lack of prejudice.

  1. Deficient Performance
  2. Invoking the Fifth Amendment

¶36 In addition to Arce’s arguments already discussed above regarding Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right, Arce argues that his counsel acted deficiently by not seeking to limit or remediate the State’s continued leading questions and Wife’s invocations by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction. Based on the reasoning in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), and In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176 (6th Cir. 2022), competent counsel could reasonably choose not to take any of these actions, as Wife had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by having voluntarily testified about the matter in question. A “witness . . . may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell, 526 U.S. at 321. “When the witness testifies, the privilege is waived for the matters to which the witness testifies.” In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th at 193 (cleaned up). Thus, Arce’s counsel, and correspondingly the trial court, could have concluded that Wife did not have the right to invoke the privilege. Therefore, we determine that Arce fails to show deficient performance.[8]

¶37 Arce claims his counsel should have objected and pointed the court to rule 403 (excluding evidence which is substantially more prejudicial than probative), rule 510(c) (disallowing comment by a judge or counsel about, or a factfinder making an inference from, the invocation of a privilege), or rule 611(a) (allowing a court to control the examination of witnesses so as to avoid wasting time or the harassment or embarrassment of a witness) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Arce makes no effort, however, to provide us with the context of Wife’s 47 invocations or the depth of her earlier testimony.[9] While Arce discusses Wife’s trial testimony prior to the court’s interruption to allow her to consult her counsel, he provides the court no comparison of that testimony with the subject matter of the questions asked on cross-examination when she began invoking the Fifth Amendment. As a result, the briefing leaves us with no understanding about whether all 47 invocations were directly addressing matters about which Wife had already testified—particularly her recantation. Assuming the questions were simply cross-examination of statements made earlier in trial, Arce’s counsel would have no basis for an objection because the privilege would be waived. Furthermore, without an understanding of the depth of Wife’s earlier testimony, we cannot gauge whether 47 invocations corresponded in an impermissible or potentially prejudicial way to Wife’s prior trial testimony. Within the confines of the briefing provided to us, we cannot fault Arce’s counsel for failing to object or make other efforts to limit the testimony.

¶38        Given that there is an obvious basis to believe that Wife no longer possessed a Fifth Amendment privilege and where the briefing does not delineate any context for the questions for which the privilege was invoked, Arce has not overcome the presumption that his counsel acted reasonably, and we cannot conclude that Arce’s counsel was objectively deficient in his representation. State v. Hart, 2020 UT App 25, ¶ 20, 460 P.3d 604 (stating that to prove deficient performance a defendant must overcome a “strong presumption that his trial counsel rendered adequate assistance” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 805 (Utah 2020). We acknowledge that there certainly could be circumstances where compelling a witness to invoke a privilege 47 times would be troubling, but we can reach no conclusion about counsel’s failure to object to these questions here.

  1. Witness Opining and Vouching

¶39        Arce further argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to Deputy opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s statement the night of the incident. Rule 608(a) of the Utah Rules of Evidence “permits testimony concerning a witness’s general character or reputation for truthfulness or untruthfulness but prohibits any testimony as to a witness’s truthfulness on a particular occasion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 44, 248 P.3d 984 (cleaned up); see also State v. Adams, 2000 UT 42, ¶ 19, 5 P.3d 642 (detective testifying “he did not believe [the victim] was coached” was inadmissible vouching); State v. Jones, 2020 UT App 161, ¶ 14, 478 P.3d 1055 (per curiam) (“[A]dmission of testimony that bolsters the credibility of another witness’s testimony on a particular occasion is improper.”); id. ¶ 18 (officer testifying regarding interview techniques for domestic violence victims did not violate rule 608 because he did not opine on the victim’s truthfulness on a particular occasion); State v. Lewis, 2020 UT App 132, ¶ 26, 475 P.3d 956 (police sergeant describing variations he sees in victims’ statements when multiple accounts are given was not bolstering, as “he did not directly opine on [the victim’s] credibility”); State v. Cegars, 2019 UT App 54, ¶¶ 23–24, 440 P.3d 924 (school counselor testifying that she did not believe the victim would fabricate allegations was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Vail, 2002 UT App 176, ¶¶ 15, 17, 51 P.3d 1285 (detective testifying that two victims of child sexual abuse “exhibited the indicators that she equated with trustworthiness” was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Stefaniak, 900 P.2d 1094, 1095 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (social worker testifying that a victim of abuse “seemed to be quite candid” in an interview was inadmissible vouching (cleaned up)). For example, an officer cannot comment on whether a witness appeared “to be genuine” during an interview, as it is a direct comment on the witness’s truthfulness and clearly violates rule 608. State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 31, 317 P.3d 452 (cleaned up). We emphasize again today that the State’s use of a law enforcement officer’s testimony for bolstering and vouching in this manner is inappropriate. We perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

¶40 But even so, Arce can prevail only if he establishes both deficient performance and prejudice. And for the reasons set forth in Part II.B, we conclude that he was not prejudiced by this deficient performance.

  1. Referring to Wife as “the Victim”

¶41        Finally, Arce argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times in front of the jury. Our supreme court “recognize[s] the gravity of referring to witnesses as victims during a trial.” State v. Vallejo, 2019 UT 38, ¶ 102, 449 P.3d 39. In cases, such as the one before us, “where a defendant claims that the charged crime did not actually occur, and the allegations against that defendant are based almost exclusively on the complaining witness’s testimony—the trial court, the State, and all witnesses should be prohibited from referring to the complaining witness as ‘the victim.’” State v. Devey, 2006 UT App 219, ¶ 17, 138 P.3d 90. Though in this case we do not exclusively rely on such testimony because there was a “sort of reddish mark” on Wife’s collarbone and Arce told Deputy there was “some pushing and shoving,” we still restate today that the action of referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” by anyone in front of the jury is inappropriate. Again, we perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

  1. Prejudice

¶42        Ultimately, Arce has not shown that any of these alleged errors prejudiced him. There is not a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel failing to object further to the State’s questioning of Wife, moving to strike, or asking for a curative instruction, the result of Arce’s trial would be different. As mentioned, the jury heard testimony from four witnesses, each of whom told the same story, namely, that Wife said Arce hit and choked her that night. The testimony of these four witnesses matched Wife’s own words in the statement she gave to Detective. Furthermore, the reason Wife provided to Deputy for dismissing the charges was not that she had lied but that she needed Arce to keep his job as well as his help with their children. As we point out above, even Arce in his statement to Deputy admitted there was “some pushing and shoving,” which is inconsistent with Wife’s recantation. And Arce did not explicitly deny that he hit, kicked, or choked Wife, instead stating only that he could not recall doing so. Most reasonable jurors would think that physical assault is something that one would remember having committed. Furthermore, and perhaps most convincingly, Wife’s own statement to Detective was entered into evidence for the jury to read. In short, finding that none of these alleged errors undermines our confidence in the outcome of this case, each of Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fails for lack of prejudice. Moreover, because none of these alleged errors were sufficiently prejudicial alone, we, for the same reason, conclude that the errors do not cumulatively undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial.[10]

CONCLUSION

¶43 Arce’s claim that the court erred by allowing the State to repeatedly compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of the jury fails because the issue was not preserved. Furthermore, Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail because his counsel’s failure to object to Wife’s invocations, Deputy’s vouching for Wife’s credibility, and repeated references to Wife as “the victim” do not present a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel’s failure the result of the proceeding would have been different. We therefore affirm Arce’s convictions.

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


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

[2] A “grant of use immunity [prohibits] any prosecutorial use of [a witness’s] testimony or evidence gained from it” against the witness. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 17, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017).

[3] The State argues that she invoked the Fifth Amendment 45 times, but the discrepancy of two invocations is not dispositive in this case, so we will use Arce’s number moving forward.

[4] Though we make our decision on preservation grounds, it appears the State is correct that a witness cannot testify about a subject and later invoke a Fifth Amendment privilege in order to avoid cross-examination on that same topic. See Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999); In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176, 193 (6th Cir. 2022). This issue is addressed further below. See infra ¶ 36.

[5] The State argues that a valid claim of privilege “turns in part on the likelihood of future prosecution.” A witness may not “employ the privilege to avoid giving testimony that he simply would prefer not to give,” Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 560 n.7 (1980); instead, the witness must face real—not remote or speculative—dangers, Zicarelli v. New Jersey State Comm’n of Investigation, 406 U.S. 472, 478 (1972). Therefore, a grant of immunity nullifies the witness’s privilege as it forecloses the possibility of subsequent prosecution. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 18, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017). Here, the State argues that while it did withdraw the written immunity offer, the offer was “irrelevant” as the State put on the record several times that it would not seek to have the court hold Wife in contempt for refusing to testify. We do not agree and fail to understand how a promise not to seek to have a trial court hold Wife in contempt is sufficient to rise to the level of granting her “effective blanket immunity,” as the State argues. Wife still faced the very real danger of prosecution for perjury, for which the State offered her no protection. Thus, the State did not provide Wife with immunity—either written or through promises not to charge her with contempt—and Wife’s Fifth Amendment privilege remained intact. However, the State is likely correct that the right had been waived for subjects about which she freely had already testified. And, as discussed, this issue was not preserved, so there is no need for further consideration of whether allowing the State to continue questioning Wife was an error and, if so, whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Arce absent the questioning.

[6] Arce acknowledges that it was Wife’s counsel rather than his own who made the objection to Wife taking the stand knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Despite this, Arce argues that the issue is preserved by primarily relying on Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, 285 P.3d 1133. But Kell is distinguishable from the present case. In Kell, the question was whether an issue was preserved when the State opposed a criminal defendant’s rule 60(b) motion and the criminal defendant did not respond to the State’s arguments yet later sought to appeal the decision. Id. ¶¶ 9– 10. The State and a criminal defendant are not in an analogous adversarial position to the criminal defendant and nonparty witness, Wife, present here. Kell is simply inapposite.

[7] Arce does not claim the application of any exception to preservation.

[8] Arce points to State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, 361 P.2d 104, for us to consider. But Bond is not particularly helpful here. The witness in Bond did not attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering a question regarding a subject about which he had testified previously. Id. ¶ 10Also, the analysis in Bond must be viewed in context. In Bond, the Utah Supreme Court was reviewing the denial of a motion for a mistrial—a trial court decision reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard—and an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. ¶¶ 13, 22. Thus, unlike the case before us, Bond does not address these issues as evidentiary rulings.

[9] We acknowledge that Arce has appended a transcript containing the invocations to his brief. But beyond the appendix, Arce’s brief makes no attempt to address the context of the invocations—referring to them only as a whole rather than providing any information as to the subject matter of the questioning that provoked them. Arce does not attempt to explain, for example, if one, two, or three questions might be permissible. Neither does he explain at which point the line would have been crossed to render his counsel’s inaction objectively unreasonable.

[10] “The cumulative-error doctrine requires us to reverse if (1) we determine, or assume without deciding, that two or more errors occurred and (2) we determine that the cumulative effect of those errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” ConocoPhillips Co. v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2017 UT App 68, ¶ 30, 397 P.3d 772.

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Mother Made False Accusations Against a Father to Win Custody and Had a Restraining Order Put in Place With No Evidence to Back Her Reason, Can This Be Overturned?

Can it be overturned? It is possible.

Will it be overturned? The odds don’t favor Dad. While some fathers who are falsely accused do obtain vindication, the odds are against them. Why?

There is an undeniable bias in favor of mothers who claim to be victims of abuse or who claim that their husbands/children’s father is abusive. Courts err on the side of caution, take a “better safe than sorry” approach. There are many reasons for this, including but not necessarily limited to: beliefs that women don’t lie about abuse, belief that children are generally better off in the sole or primary custody of their mothers, and cynically calculating that it’s better for the judge’s career to issue protective orders against men who are either innocent or there is a question of their innocence than it is to “take the chance” on innocent until proven guilty. When court’s engage in such behavior, it’s lazy, it’s cowardly, it’s judicial malfeasance.

How can/does a falsely accused parent (father or mother, for that matter) clear his/her good name? Short of the kinds of things one cannot control (i.e., suddenly getting a new, sympathetic judge because the old judge retired or got sick, etc.), the most effective way is: presenting the court with evidence so overwhelming that the court cannot deny it, cannot disregard it without looking biased and/or incompetent. Easier said than done, and not always possible, but it’s really the only moral option.

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

https://www.quora.com/Mother-made-false-accusations-against-a-father-to-win-custody-and-had-a-restraining-order-put-in-place-with-no-evidence-to-back-her-reason-can-this-be-overturned/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Fair Treatment in Court by Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant.

The family law legal system likes to portray itself as a shining beacon of justice and equity, but I have seen first-hand that it is not. Whether it is opportunistic clients and their lawyers who will throw anything against the wall to see what sticks, or cowboy commissioners and judges who play fast and loose with the rules (and even make up their own), generally you will not get a fair shake (just a fair shake) unless you fight—and fight hard and extensively—for it.

Fight just to keep everyone honest? Really? Yes. Well, yes, in the sense that unless you don’t care about your own good character and subscribe to the “fight fire with fire” way of doing things.

If you have enough money, there is more than one lawyer out there that will take it and do and say basically whatever you want.

What about the commissioners and judges? Aren’t they motivated purely by upholding the law and the rules and dispensing justice impartially? Some are. Not all. It’s unpleasantly surprising to me how many domestic relations commissioners and judges indulge in pride, biases, apathy, and indolence.

If you know you’re innocent, if you know you’re a good person, that is rarely enough to ensure you’re treated fairly. What can you do if and when the deck is stacked against you because the opposing party is willing to lie, cheat, and steal his/her way to victory? You must fight with everything that you have. You must—if you can—produce overwhelming evidence that you are in the right (or the opposing side is in the wrong) if you are to have confidence that you will be treated fairly. That’s hard. That’s financially and emotionally exhausting. But there are no shortcuts.

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

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Why Get it Straight From the Horse’s Mouth When You Can Get a Truncated Version, Second-Hand?

When a custody evaluator and/or private guardian ad litem is/are appointed in a divorce case in which custody and parent-time of the children is disputed, they usually interview the children who are the subject of the custody and parent-time dispute and then make observations and recommendations regarding what the custody and parent-time awards should be based in part on those interviews.

But they never record their interviews with the children.

Instead, every custody evaluator (except one) that I know and every PGAL that I know wants us to believe (as opposed to knowing, based upon an objectively verifiable recording) that 1) they did in fact speak with the children; 2) what the custody evaluators and PGALs report second-hand and in summary fashion accurately reflects what was (and was not) asked of the children and what the children said (and did not say) in response; and 3) that the custody evaluator’s and PGAL’s assessment of the children’s credibility (assuming–not knowing–that the child were interviewed in the first place and that what the children allegedly said is in fact what the children said) is correct.

Such a policy is incongruous with the way any other witness account is presented to a court.

Courts claim they need to know the child’s “intent [whatever that means in the context of a child custody dispute] and desires.”

Yet the court goes out of its way to ensure that what we get from custody evaluators and/or PGALs not just second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements, but summary second-hand accounts of the child’s purported statements.

Then, on the basis of the purported, second-hand summary accounts, the non-witness PGAL “makes a recommendation regarding the best interest of the minor” by ostensibly “disclos[ing] the factors that form the basis of the recommendation” when the purported factors have–not necessarily, but by design, no less–no objectively verifiable basis in the child’s testimony (because there is no testimony). Such a “take my un-recorded, unverifiable, second-hand word for it” process elevates faith over fact, and needlessly.

Yet by way of the court interviewing the child directly and on the record (or by having the child deposed in a fitting, appropriate setting, of course), the court could easily obtain objectively verifiable knowledge of not only the child’s “intent and desires” stated in the child’s own words but in the same way also obtain knowledge of the child’s relevant experiences, observations, feelings, opinions, and anything else the court may want to learn that bears on the child custody and parent-time award decisions.

Everyone who tries to justify the policy against child testimony does so by claiming that there is no equal or superior alternative. Such claims are without merit.

I would be cruel and unreasonable if I did not concede that a child should not be questioned on and for the record if it were proved (as reflected in particularized findings, not generalized views or preferences) that that particular child likely will (not merely could) be harmed by testifying to the extent that the value of the testimony does not outweigh the harm. In such a situation barring that child from testifying would be warranted.

But when avoiding the subject altogether is worse for the child than confronting it, question the child on the record–for the child’s sake. For the sake of the truth- and fact-finding processes. It is cruel and unreasonable to silence the child that way.

Many children are not only willing to testify to the facts bearing upon the child custody and parent-time awards, they want to testify to them. Even when it may be unpleasant to address the topics. Regardless of how eager children may be to testify, they have the greatest stake in the child custody and parent-time awards. They deserve to be heard from, and in their own words. Who would (who could, credibly) gainsay that?

And the notion that a judge or commissioner interviewing a child, or a child being questioned in a deposition (and the child could be deposed by the PGAL, if there were sufficient facts to support a conclusion that the child is in danger of suffering verifiable serious, irreparable harm were the child questioned by the parents’ respective attorneys) would inherently cause a child unjustifiable harm is self-evidently false.

First, I have personal experience with children testifying for the record in child custody and parent-time proceedings without incident. I (and others who have the same experience actually deposing a child) know that it is not inherently harmful to every child who is old enough to testify competently.

Second, children regularly testify in proceedings substantively indistinguishable from divorce/parentage child custody and parent-time proceedings (e.g., contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases). This is proof that child testimony–though it may be frightening or saddening for some children–is not universally catastrophic for all (even most) children who are old enough to testify competently.

Thus, the assertion that judges, domestic relations commissioners, and lawyers cannot competently question a child in a divorce-based child-custody and parent-time dispute unless they are “specially trained as PGALs (especially when the ‘special training’ can be obtained in a matter of a few days’ time)” is invalid on its face. If one need not be “specially trained” to question a child in contested child abuse, neglect, or dependency cases, contested petitions for termination of parental rights cases, contested adoption and guardianship cases, one need not be “specially trained” as a PGAL to question a child competently and with due sensitivity.

My biggest worry (among many) about the way custody evaluations and PGAL appointments work in Utah is when custody evaluators and PGALs–who can by recording child interviews easily provide the parents and the court with an objective way of verifying whether the children were interviewed, how well or poorly they were interviewed, what they were asked (and not asked) and what they said (or did not say) in response–refuse to do so.

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

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What Assumptions Can You Make About Someone Who Has Been Divorced Twice?

You can assume whatever you want about anyone or anything, but that does not mean your assumptions are accurate.

And there is this from Merriam-Webster: “Although presume and assume both mean “to take something as true,” “presume” implies more confidence or evidence backed reasoning. An “assumption” suggests there is little evidence supporting your guess.

People make assumptions all the time, often (but not always) to their detriment and the detriment of the people of whom they make assumptions. You know what they say about people who assume.

That stated, assumptions based upon sufficient evidence are not only reasonable but often warranted or even wholly justified. If you see someone turning red and then blue and appearing to be unable to breathe while making the sign of choking, you can assume he/she is choking. But it’s still an assumption. You didn’t see the would-be choking victim actually swallow anything, after all.

So, what can you safely assume about someone of whom you know nothing other than the fact that he/she has been divorced twice? In fairness to one contemplating making an assumption and to the person twice divorced:

  • It’s fair to wonder why someone has been divorced twice and whether the divorcee may not be “marriage material”—especially if you are contemplating marrying the twice-divorced person.

o   It’s fair to assume (assuming—see what I did there?—you want your marriage to last) that if you intend to marry the twice-divorced person, your marriage will have a lower chance of success than a marriage to someone who has never been divorced. Statistics indicate that in the U.S., just under 50% percent of first-time marriages end in divorce, while 65-67% of second marriages, and about 74% of third marriages end in divorce.

  • It’s unfair to assume that the divorce was the twice-divorced person’s fault either or both times. It’s fair to “wonder if”, but not to “assume that”.
  • It’s also fair to fair to “wonder if”, but not to “assume that”:

o   the twice-divorced person was the cause of one or both of the divorces and whether the divorcee has poor judgment in selecting spouses.

o   the twice-divorced person is either a sucker or someone who marries suckers.

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Is there a difference between hearings and trials in Utah divorce cases?

Yes. A hearing is not the same as a trial. While there may be some similarities, they are not the same thing and do not accomplish the same objectives.

The primary difference between a trial and a hearing is that a trial disposes of the law suit after the parties present evidence to the judge for a final ruling on the case. The trial is the end of the case (unless there is an appeal after trial, but that’s a different subject for another blog).

Hearings take place before trial, are usually shorter than a trial, and are used to resolve issues that arise during the pendency of the case before trial. You can and likely will have multiple hearings in your case, while there is just one trial.

Hearings usually take minutes or hours. Trials take longer, usually several days or weeks.

Hearings take place before trial.

Your first experience with the courtroom (whether in the courtroom or whether you participate via remote video conference) will almost surely be in a hearing, not trial.

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

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House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”

Today’s blog post reviews House Bill 131 (HB0131 (utah.gov)), entitled “Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements”. It proposes changes to Utah Code § 80-2-602, the law governing when members of the clergy are and are not required to report child abuse.

Currently, Utah Code § 80-2-602(1) provides, in pertinent part regarding clergy and child abuse reporting:

“[I]f a person . . . has reason to believe that a child is, or has been, the subject of abuse or neglect, or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, the person shall immediately report the suspected abuse or neglect to the division or to the nearest peace officer or law enforcement agency.” (§ 80-2-602(1)

So far, so good.

(3) Subject to Subsection (4), the reporting requirement described in Subsection (1) does not apply to:

(a) a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession, if:

(i) the perpetrator made the confession directly to the member of the clergy; and

(ii) the member of the clergy is, under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of the confession[.]

*****

(4)

(a) When a member of the clergy receives information about abuse or neglect from any source other than confession of the perpetrator, the member of the clergy is required to report the information even if the member of the clergy also received information about the abuse or neglect from the confession of the perpetrator.

(b) Exemption of the reporting requirement for an individual described in Subsection (3) does not exempt the individual from any other efforts required by law to prevent further abuse or neglect by the perpetrator.

H.B. 129 would, if passed into law, include this new provision (please note that the numbers out to the side are the line numbers in H.B. 131):

58          (4) (a) Notwithstanding the exemption in Subsection (3)(a), a member of the clergy

59     may report suspected child abuse or neglect.

I have two major concerns about such a provision.

1. Confession, as they say, is good for the soul. It is. Why? Knowing that confession to clergy—and knowing that confession is and shall remain strictly confidential (private)—is often the only thing that summons a sinner’s courage to confront and admit his/her sins. The freedom to confess (to clergy) without fear of arrest or incarceration helps some who are tormented by their sins confront them. Through confession, clergy serve to help the sinner (whose sins are also often crimes) take the first step toward repentance. Take that absolute confidentiality away, and the value of confession is destroyed. Many who would have otherwise confessed will—knowing confession is no longer strictly confidential—not confess and thus not work their way to being publicly accountable. No one benefits from that.

Some well-meaning clergy might believe that taking (or even eliciting) a confession and then reporting the sinner to law enforcement is “for the sinner’s own good,” but that kind of betrayal of trust would then lead to distrusting clergy and then to avoiding and rejecting the very spiritual care we so desperately need both individually and as a society.

2. I’ve been a lawyer for a long time now (27 years, to be exact, as of the date I write this post), and while I don’t claim to know everything, I have experienced “mays” becoming “shalls”; judges and juries go from “I acknowledge that you didn’t have to report” to “I can’t believe you didn’t report!” or “Just because you weren’t required to report does not mean in this instance that you shouldn’t have; have you no decency!” I can easily foresee situations in which a clergy member keeps a confession confidential (as is his/her religious and moral duty) and then be publicly humiliated for it, sued civilly for it, and yes, even somehow convicted criminally for it (where there’s a will, there’s a way). It’s hard enough to be a clergy member as it is. It’s hard enough to encourage and inspire people to repent and better themselves. Eliminate the strictly confidential status of the confession and the essential nature of confession itself is eliminated. When it comes to reporting abuse “clergy may” turns into “clergy shall”. That would be disastrous. If clergy must rat out the sinners in their congregations, then those whom clergy could help the most will avoid and reject the clergy (see above).

To those who will say, “Have you no concern for the abuse victims?,” the answer is clear (hard to accept, perhaps, but no less clear): there is a greater interest than that of the individual victims at stake here. Confidential confession to clergy helps clergy to persuade sinners to recognize and do what is right. We are all sinners to some degree. Diluting the confidentiality of the confession will cause potential penitents to remain in the shadows.

Priest-penitent privilege: Removing it doesn’t help children | Opinion – Deseret News

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

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Why You Should Always Order Audio Recordings By Braxton Mounteer

You may be asking yourself, why should I order from the court a copy of the audio recordings of my court hearings? Shouldn’t the court’s own notes in the written record be sufficient? Can’t I just make my own recordings? Not in Utah.

First, the “written record” that the court keeps is more like meeting minutes and is not a word-for-word record of everything that was said by the parties, the lawyers, and the court during a hearing or trial.

Second, Utah does not allow you or your attorney to make your own recordings of your own court proceedings. Such a rule makes absolutely no sense and imposes undue costs and wait times on parties and their attorneys, but it’s the rule nonetheless.

Third, and most importantly, you should order the audio recording of your hearings and other court appearances to ensure that the orders that come out of those proceedings are accurate and complete–to ensure they are faithful to what was actually said and ordered. Most people cannot keep it all correctly remembered in their heads.

When there is a back and forth between the parties and their counsel over the specifics of a judgement or recommendation that was handed down months or years or even days ago, knowing exactly what was said is vitally important. You wouldn’t want a decision in your favor to be forgotten or misstated. Nor would you want to be mistreated due to someone imposing a harsher penalty on you than the court issued simply because no one could remember what the evidence was, what the testimony was, and what the court’s decisions were.

In Utah, you need to pay $15.00 and fill out and submit to the court clerk a form to request an audio recording. It is fast and easy. Your lawyer or opposing counsel may say “You don’t need to do that, I remember the hearing”; do not believe him/her. Human memory is fallible. Lawyers have the reputation that they have for a reason. Do yourself a favor and spend the five minutes that it would take to fill out and pay for an audio recording. Don’t leave your fate to faulty memories.

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Evidence and Honesty By Braxton Mounteer

You have just decided to file for divorce. Or perhaps you have been served with divorce papers. At some point early on in the process you will likely think to yourself, “I have so many text messages that clearly prove my spouse is terrible,” or “I have videos of my spouse behaving badly.” You could be right. But do you know what kind of evidence is relevant and that the court finds persuasive? And have you considered the implications of what your “evidence” actually says about you? For every gotcha text message or video you have, does your spouse have similar dirt on you?

You may think to yourself, “I’ll just delete the messages that cast me in a bad light,” or “I’ll edit the videos a certain way to make myself look better” and engage in other cherry picking. This rarely works. Indeed, it often backfires. Manipulating the facts is a form of lying. And it’s not that hard to spot or expose.

Understand what kinds of evidence the court needs and what is useless to a court. The court’s jobs are clearcut: 1) end the marriage 2) divide the marital assets, 3) divide responsibility for marital debts, 4) deal with custody of the children (if any), parent-time, and child support, and 4) determine whether to award alimony, and if so, how much and for how long based upon the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay. That’s it. It is not the purpose of the divorce court to settle scores between you and your spouse or to declare who’s worse than the other. While spousal or child abuse can be relevant in a divorce case, stories about shouting matches and squabbles are nothing new or compelling in a divorce case.

Take a businesslike approach to your divorce case. You have to work out your feelings in a divorce case, just not in court. Don’t dwell on your feelings too much when dealing with the court; it’s a waste of your time and energy.

What should you do, then? You need to face the truth and deal with the truth. Submit the relevant evidence and concede your flaws and faults along with it. Your credibility is more important than trying to put up a false front. Your credibility is easier to show and maintain when you’re honest. Courts are more sympathetic with honest people than with liars.

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

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The Problem with Private Guardians ad Litem. Part 3 of 3

As any attorney can do with any client, a PGAL clearly has the right to argue on a child client’s behalf, and the Utah Code makes clear that a PGAL can express a child client’s “intentions and desires” (See Utah Code Section 78A-2-705(13)(d)). Here is how I analyze the argument that PGALs state what they allege to be a child client’s intentions and/or desires:

  • If an attorney makes an argument pertaining to what the court’s child custody or parent-time orders should be, that argument must be based upon evidence duly admitted into the court record, or there is no evidence supporting the argument. An argument unsupported by the evidence in the record is basis for objection. An argument based upon speculation is basis for objection.

  • A recommendation made by a PGAL is an argument. The elements of a recommendation and an argument are the same. Without a basis of duly admitted evidence in the court record for support, a PGAL’s recommendation is without support.

  • Implicit in an argument are underlying facts cited to support the argument. A PGAL cannot argue that “this is the child’s desire” without citing evidence of the child’s desire. A PGAL who claims to know a child client’s intentions and desires to the court is, by definition, testifying, not arguing. To argue that we can discern a child’s intentions and/or desires from the evidence in the record still requires evidence in the record to which to cite in support of the argument. An argument cannot be a substitute for evidence. An argument is not an argument without evidentiary support.

  • If a PGAL bases his arguments to any degree upon his child client’s communication of the child’s intentions and desires (whether to the PGAL or to someone else), the child client must have first communicated his/her intentions and desires. If a PGAL then reports to the court those attorney-client communications on the subject of the client’s intentions, that is still either 1) hearsay or inferential hearsay or 2) the witness’s proffered testimony that entitles a party to cross-examine the witness at the very least.

  • If a PGAL claims to have discerned a client’s intentions and desires without having received express communication from the client as the client’s intentions and desires (such as, for example, not conversing or corresponding in writing, but instead monitoring the child’s communications with other people or observing the child’s behavior), then the PGAL would be acting as a witness.

  • If a PGAL is the attorney for a party to the case, then the PGAL does not get to testify for the client. And if the PGAL proffers a client’s testimony, then that testimony is subject to cross-examination.

  • A PGAL cannot “argue what my client wants” without there being some evidence that what the PGAL asserted “the client wants” is, in fact, what the clients want. With parties that’s fairly easy because they will have filed a pleading stating what they want. If there is any question as to whether the pleadings are not those of the party, then the party can either indicate that spontaneously or be asked to verify or deny it. With child clients of PGAL there are rarely, if ever, pleadings filed with the court(as the term is properly defined, i.e., a formal statement of a cause of action, not as the term is carelessly thrown around to mean documents filed with the court) by the children through their counsel. Even if the PGAL had somehow filed pleadings in the action AND the court recognized the children as parties to the action, their PGAL attorney cannot testify for them.

 

  • Advocacy of a PGAL client’s desires requires evidence of the child client’s desires. Evidence of the child client’s desires requires a record that the child expressed/articulated those desires; otherwise, we would find ourselves in a situation where the PGAL could literally fabricate “argument” on the basis of nonexistent evidence and get away with it clean. That is clearly not how the law and the rules of evidence apply.

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

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Evidence and Honesty By Braxton Mounteer

You have just decided to file for divorce. Or perhaps you have been served with divorce papers. At some point early on in the process you will likely think to yourself, “I have so many text messages that clearly prove my spouse is terrible,” or “I have videos of my spouse behaving badly.” You could be right. But do you know what kind of evidence is relevant and that the court finds persuasive? And have you considered the implications of what your “evidence” actually says about you? For every gotcha text message or video you have, does your spouse have similar dirt on you?

You may think to yourself, “I’ll just delete the messages that cast me in a bad light,” or “I’ll edit the videos a certain way to make myself look better” and engage in other cherry picking. This rarely works. Indeed, it often backfires. Manipulating the facts is a form of lying. And it’s not that hard to spot or expose.

Understand what kinds of evidence the court needs and what is useless to a court. The court’s jobs are clearcut: 1) end the marriage 2) divide the marital assets, 3) divide responsibility for marital debts, 4) deal with custody of the children (if any), parent-time, and child support, and 4) determine whether to award alimony, and if so, how much and for how long based upon the recipient’s need and the payor’s ability to pay. That’s it. It is not the purpose of the divorce court to settle scores between you and your spouse or to declare who’s worse than the other. While spousal or child abuse can be relevant in a divorce case, stories about shouting matches and squabbles are nothing new or compelling in a divorce case.

Take a businesslike approach to your divorce case. You have to work out your feelings in a divorce case, just not in court. Don’t dwell on your feelings too much when dealing with the court; it’s a waste of your time and energy.

What should you do, then? You need to face the truth and deal with the truth. Submit the relevant evidence and concede your flaws and faults along with it. Your credibility is more important than trying to put up a false front. Your credibility is easier to show and maintain when you’re honest. Courts are more sympathetic with honest people than with liars.

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

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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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How to Avoid Being Called a Liar in a Utah Case By Braxton Mounteer

Who would you believe more in a court case: a person who admits to his/her faults, who honestly discloses all of his/her relevant information (even the information that hurts his/her case), and answered questions with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” or a person who lied (even if just a couple times)?

One of the worst things to happen in a divorce case is for your credibility to come into question. If the court finds you lied about just one matter, it can cite that one lie as reason not to believe you on virtually all matters.

Simply put, to avoid damaging your credibility, always be truthful. This should be obvious, but I am amazed at how often clients of the firm I work for try to get away with lying (and how often they try to get away with lying about stuff that doesn’t really matter anyway, but I digress). The truth is learned and established by facts that are proven to be facts by the evidence in support of those facts. Your judge will not care much, if at all, about how you feel he or she should rule, the judge is (or should be) guided by the truth, by the facts, and then apply the law according to what the facts are.

To ensure your credibility is not questioned, admit when you are wrong. If you try to bend the truth about your sins and mistake or conceal the truth about them, you are a liar. Try to justify it any way you like, lying is lying. Whether by commission (expressly lying) or omission (withholding the whole truth, selectively disclosing the facts, shading the truth, spin, you get the idea), it’s all lying. While there are some situations in which you are not obligated to tell the truth about crime or possible crime you have committed (see the Fifth Amendment), questions of and risk of being convicted of crimes doesn’t arise very often in divorce cases. Honesty is the best policy.

I am amazed at how often client fail to understand that they lose credibility when they provide us with inaccurate information. While you may not be able to remember everything regarding your finances or your personal and family history, that doesn’t give you a license to fudge your answers or give incomplete answers. The “I didn’t understand” and “I don’t recall” excuses don’t inspire confidence in your credibility. They have just the opposite effect; they make you look lazy, scheming, and dishonest. Honest people are not forgetful people. Honest people aren’t afraid to produce their bank statements (all of them). Honest people aren’t afraid to disclose that side job. If you claim to have few or no records of things that normal people usually have records for, the default conclusion is that you have something to hide. While there are limits on what the opposing party can ask of you, when what they request complies with the rules, then answer questions completely and with complete honesty, produce all of the documents that are discoverable. Even if what you answer and what you produce may expose some of your flaws, it will also reveal you as honest and believable.

Once it’s damaged, credibility is hard to repair. Better never to do anything to call your credibility into doubt. Be honest. It’s the right thing to do, and if doing the right thing isn’t enough motivation for you, honesty tends to be the better “strategy” than lying and deception.

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THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. CODY BLAIR MURRAY, Appellant. Opinion

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee,

v.

CODY BLAIR MURRAY,

Appellant.

Opinion

No. 20200890-CA

Filed May 18, 2023

Second District Court, Ogden Department

The Honorable Joseph M. Bean

No. 191902454

Emily Adams, Freyja Johnson, and Cherise Bacalski,

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and William M. Hains,

Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which

JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN

FORSTER concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        After Cody Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court ordered him to pay the victim’s moving expenses and 12 weeks of lost wages as restitution. Murray now appeals that restitution order, arguing that his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either of those losses. On the moving expenses, we agree with Murray and reverse that portion of the order. On the lost wages, however, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to link Murray’s criminal conduct to the claimed loss. We accordingly affirm that portion of the order.

BACKGROUND

¶2        Murray married C.M. in March 2018, and they lived together throughout their short marriage. On January 2 or 3, 2019, C.M. filed a report with law enforcement alleging that Murray had engaged in sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was medicated and sleeping. On the same day that she filed this report, C.M. obtained a temporary protective order against Murray based on this same allegation.

¶3        On January 3, 2019, law enforcement served Murray with the protective order at the residence he shared with C.M., and Murray complied with the order by packing his belongings and leaving the residence. Within an hour of leaving, however, Murray asked a friend to contact C.M. on his behalf. As subsequently alleged in a probable cause affidavit, C.M. soon received “phone calls and text messages” from the friend’s phone in which the friend relayed messages that Murray “loved her” and “missed her.” As also alleged, while the friend was on the phone speaking to C.M., Murray “passed a paper note” to the friend asking him “to let C.M. know that [Murray] was scared.” C.M. reported these communications to law enforcement as a violation of the protective order.

¶4        The State later filed two cases against Murray. The two cases were filed separately and were not consolidated. In the first case, the State charged Murray with one count of rape. That charge was based on C.M.’s allegation that Murray had sexual intercourse with her without her consent while she was sleeping. That case was later dismissed.

¶5        In the second case, which is the case at issue in this appeal, the State charged Murray with one count of violating a protective order. See Utah Code § 76-5-108 (2018). This charge was based on Murray’s indirect communications with C.M. on January 3, 2019. In March 2020, Murray pleaded guilty to the charged offense. As a result of a plea deal, the charge was reduced from a class A misdemeanor to a class B misdemeanor. In his affidavit in support of the plea, Murray admitted that “[o]n or about January 3, 2019,” he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Murray also agreed that he “may be ordered to make restitution to any victims of [his] crimes.”

¶6        Murray agreed to be sentenced at that same hearing. During the sentencing portion of the hearing, C.M.’s attorney asked the court to leave open C.M.’s restitution claim for the “one year statutory time limit,” informing the court that she would “submit any restitution” after receiving further documentation. The court left C.M.’s restitution claim open as requested.

¶7        In July 2020, the Utah Office of Victims of Crime (UOVC) filed a motion for restitution, asserting that it had paid C.M. a total of $6,264.47.[1] Of that amount, $5,520.28 was designated as reimbursement for “[l]oss of wages” and $744.19 was designated as reimbursement for “[r]elocation.”

¶8        Murray objected to UOVC’s motion for restitution and requested a hearing. At that hearing, UOVC’s attorney called two witnesses: (1) a representative from UOVC (Representative) and (2) C.M.

¶9        Representative testified that UOVC received C.M.’s application for restitution in November 2019. Representative testified that C.M. listed both the protective order violation and the alleged rape as the bases for her restitution claim. Representative further noted that in reviewing C.M.’s restitution claim, “the reparations officer indicated that the claim was approved based on both incidents”—the alleged rape and the protective order violation—because “they were so close together” that “the reparations officer couldn’t separate them into two separate claims.”

¶10      Representative testified that UOVC ultimately approved and paid C.M.’s expenses for “loss of wages” in the amount of $5,520.28, as well as “relocation” or moving expenses in the amount of $744.19, thus totaling $6,264.47. With respect to the lost wages claim, Representative testified that UOVC received a document from C.M.’s employer that explained “how much [C.M.] made at the time and how long she was out of work.” Representative said that UOVC also received a “health provider statement” that corroborated that C.M. missed work. Representative further said that from these documents and other verification efforts with C.M.’s employer, UOVC determined that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and that it had then paid “12 weeks of lost wages” for the work C.M. missed from “January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” at “[s]ixty-six percent of the full-time salary,” which in C.M.’s case amounted to $5,520.28.

¶11      With respect to the moving expenses, Representative testified that UOVC paid C.M. $744.19 to cover “reimbursement for movers.” Representative said that C.M. told UOVC that she had moved because “she didn’t feel comfortable in having [Murray] know where she lived.”

¶12      UOVC’s attorney then called C.M., who testified that she obtained the protective order against Murray because of the “actions he was making to [her] in [her] sleep.” C.M. also provided and referred to a note from a doctor indicating that C.M. had been seen because “[f]or the duration of her marriage her husband was sexually assaulting her in her sleep,” “[s]he was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse,” and she had “[m]ajor depressive disorder” and “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

¶13      During C.M.’s testimony, UOVC’s attorney asked, “[A]s a result of the violation of the protective order, can you tell us what effect the violation of the protective order, the conduct that the defendant caused—what happened to you as a result?” C.M. responded that she suffered “severe panic attacks” and flashbacks, “live[d] in fear nearly every day,” felt a “[l]oss of trust of people in general,” and had “a hard time concentrating or focusing.” She said she had “severe depression” and was simply not “able to function like [she had] always been able to.”

¶14      UOVC’s attorney then asked if Murray’s conduct “in December or January of 2018, ’19 . . . interfere[d] with [her] ability to interact with people,” to which C.M. responded, “Definitely.” C.M. testified that because these issues “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” there were times where she had to take leave from work. She testified that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” and that she was out of work periodically after that, thus agreeing with the suggestion from the attorney that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” UOVC’s attorney asked if C.M.’s requests to take leave from work starting in “December of 2018” were “related to [Murray’s] conduct . . . that was occurring at that time,” and C.M. responded, “It was.”

¶15      With respect to the moving expenses, C.M. testified that she moved from the home she’d shared with Murray because the divorce decree ordered her to sell it. C.M. said that she moved in May 2020—17 months after Murray violated the protective order—and that her restitution request was based on the movers she had hired to assist with that move.

¶16      Murray didn’t call any witnesses at the restitution hearing. Instead, after UOVC’s attorney rested, each side presented closing arguments. UOVC’s attorney asked the court to order restitution for lost wages because C.M. had to take leave from work “[a]s a result of [Murray’s] conduct . . . because she wasn’t able to fully perform the job.” UOVC’s attorney asked for restitution for moving expenses because “it was [Murray’s] conduct which caused” C.M. to move and she “had reason to hide her whereabouts from” Murray out of fear.

¶17     Murray, however, argued that under the restitution statute, “restitution has to be tied directly” to the offense for which he’d been convicted—which, here, was a class B misdemeanor violation of a protective order. In Murray’s view, restitution for the lost wages was not appropriate because C.M. “missing all of [that] work . . . [could not] be tied” to his violation of the protective order (as opposed to the underlying rape allegation that the protective order was based on). Murray also argued that the moving expenses could not be tied to this conviction because C.M.’s decision to move was based on an order from the divorce decree requiring C.M. and Murray to sell the house.

¶18      At the close of arguments, the court ordered restitution in the amount of $6,264.47 to cover lost wages and moving expenses. In its oral ruling, the court noted that Murray was “alleged to have committed sexual offenses against [C.M.] in her sleep” in the latter part of 2018. The court said that it would “take the testimony of the witness at face value with regard to what she felt was a violation that caused the fear,” and the court then found that Murray’s “past history” of “sexual[ly] assaulting” C.M. “in her sleep” caused her “fear” and “anxiety.” With respect to C.M.’s missed work, the court found that “whatever happened, certainly enhanced or contributed to [C.M.’s] anxiety, depression, [and] fear,” and that “after the circumstances giving rise to whatever happened in December, there was a definite downturn with regard to [C.M.’s] ability . . . to work.” And with respect to the moving expenses, the court found that the “moving expenses [were] also reasonable and arising out of the crime that occurred.”

¶19      Murray objected to the court’s ruling. Murray argued that the court could “only tie restitution to what [Murray] was convicted of or pled guilty to, which would be the violation of the protective order,” and he further argued that the court should not “consider any of the alleged sexual misconduct” in its determination of restitution. In response, the court referred to the document submitted by C.M. in her restitution application, noting that “for the duration of the marriage, [Murray] was sexually assaulting [C.M.] in her sleep” and that she “was experiencing UTIs on many occasions from the sexual abuse.” The court observed that C.M. suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress as a result. Of note, the court then wondered whether these conditions were “exacerbated . . . or caused by a violation of a protective order,” “especially the loss of work after his commission of the violation of the protective order.” (Emphasis added.)

¶20      In a subsequent written restitution order, the court ordered Murray to pay UOVC a total of $6,264.47 for lost wages and moving expenses. In its Findings of Fact, the court found that C.M. “suffered emotional trauma as a result of [Murray’s] conduct in this case” and that her “fear, anxiety, and depression . . . rendered [her] unable to perform her duties and required her to miss work.” The court found that the trauma C.M. suffered “also caused her to relocate because she feared [Murray] and didn’t want him to know where she lived.” Murray filed a timely notice of appeal from that judgment.[2]

ISSUE AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶21      Murray argues that the district court improperly ordered restitution for C.M.’s lost wages and moving expenses. “We will not disturb a district court’s restitution determination unless the court exceeds the authority prescribed by law or abuses its discretion.” State v. Calata, 2022 UT App 127, ¶ 12, 521 P.3d 920 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1268 (Utah 2023). “To the extent that the district court made legal determinations in connection with its restitution analysis, we review those legal determinations for correctness.” State v. Oliver, 2018 UT App 101, ¶ 15, 427 P.3d 495 (quotation simplified). But when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶22      The Crime Victims Restitution Act (the CVRA) requires the district court “to determine restitution for any pecuniary damages proximately caused by the defendant’s criminal conduct.” State v. Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9, 517 P.3d 414. Here, Murray challenges the court’s decision ordering him to pay C.M.’s moving expenses and her lost wages. In Murray’s view, his criminal conduct did not proximately cause either loss.

¶23      We first quickly dispense with the moving expenses issue. Murray argues that “[n]o evidence tied C.M.’s move from the marital home” to his criminal conduct, but that “the evidence on the record was that C.M. had to move because of the divorce decree.” Based on this, Murray argues that there was no basis for requiring him to pay these expenses as part of restitution. In its responsive brief, the State concedes this point. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that Murray’s argument and the State’s concession are well taken. We accordingly reverse that portion of the restitution order.

¶24      The remaining and principal issue on appeal, then, is whether the court also erred in ordering Murray to pay C.M.’s lost wages. On this, Murray argues that the court erred in two key respects: (I) by taking into account the alleged rape and (II) by then determining that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss work. We address each argument in turn.

I. Alleged Rape

¶25      Murray argues that the district court improperly based the restitution order for lost wages on C.M.’s rape allegation, rather than limiting itself to considering the sole offense to which he had pleaded guilty: violating a protective order. We see no legal error in the court’s decision.

¶26      As a general rule, we “apply the law in effect at the time of the occurrence regulated by that law.” State v. Wilkerson, 2020 UT App 160, ¶ 24, 478 P.3d 1048 (quotation simplified). The version of the restitution statute in effect at the time of Murray’s sentencing provided that

[w]hen a defendant enters into a plea disposition or is convicted of criminal activity that has resulted in pecuniary damages, . . . the court shall order that the defendant make restitution to victims of crime as provided in this chapter, or for conduct for which the defendant has agreed to make restitution as part of a plea disposition.

Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019); see also id. § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019) (“For the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.”).[3] Under these statutes, Murray therefore could not “be ordered to pay restitution for criminal activities for which he did not admit responsibility, was not convicted, or did not agree to pay restitution.” State v. Randall, 2019 UT App 120, ¶ 13, 447 P.3d 1232 (quotation simplified)

¶27      It’s true that Murray was not convicted of raping C.M. As noted, the separate criminal case that was based on the rape allegation was dismissed. It’s also true that Murray did not admit to raping C.M. in this case either. But contrary to Murray’s arguments, this doesn’t mean that his alleged sexual misconduct against C.M. could play no role in the court’s restitution analysis.

¶28      Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, and the elements of that offense were that Murray was “subject to a protective order” and “intentionally or knowingly violate[d] that order after having been properly served or having been present . . . when the order was issued.” Utah Code § 76-5­108(1) (2018). In his plea agreement, Murray acknowledged these elements and agreed that he had “committed the crime.” In the factual basis portion of the plea agreement, Murray further agreed that he had “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” Pulling this together, the criminal activity for which Murray was convicted (by way of plea) included these key pieces:

·        Murray was subject to a protective order;

·         Murray intentionally or knowingly violated the protective order; and

·         Murray did so by knowingly and intentionally communicating with C.M. through a mutual friend through phone calls and text messages.

¶29      Once Murray was convicted of this offense, the district court could then order restitution for any damages that were “proximately caused” by that offense. State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132.[4] Our supreme court has explained that restitution is intended “to compensate the victim for pecuniary damages,” as well as “to rehabilitate and deter the defendant, and others, from future illegal behavior.” State v. Laycock, 2009 UT 53, ¶ 18, 214 P.3d 104. Because the question before a restitution court is what damages were proximately caused by the offense, the court isn’t confined to just the narrow elements of the offense of conviction. Rather, while the “restitution statute requires that responsibility for the criminal conduct be firmly established, much like a guilty plea, before the court can order restitution,” “it is only the initial crime for which liability must be legally certain.” State v. Hight, 2008 UT App 118, ¶¶ 3, 5, 182 P.3d 922 (quotation simplified). Once guilt for the offense has been firmly established, the court then has “broad discretion, after reviewing the evidence presented at the restitution hearing,” to “order restitution for any pecuniary damages clearly resulting from” that offense. Id. ¶ 5 (quotation simplified). In other words, once the defendant is convicted of “criminal conduct,” the defendant can “be held responsible for all damages proximately caused by that conduct.” State v. Huffman, 2021 UT App 125, ¶ 9, 501 P.3d 564 (emphasis in original), cert. denied, 509 P.3d 198 (Utah 2022).

¶30      Our decision in Huffman is illustrative. Therethe defendant pleaded guilty to possessing drugs. Id. ¶ 7. Although the offense of drug possession doesn’t include, as an element, the destruction of property, we held that it was appropriate for the court to order restitution for damage that was done to the victim’s motorhome. This was so because evidence before the court established that the defendant’s possession of drugs inside the motorhome proximately caused those damages. Id. ¶¶ 12–14.

¶31      A similar dynamic is in play here. Again, Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order. In doing so, he acknowledged both the existence of the protective order and that he had violated its terms. Once these things were firmly established through the guilty plea, the court then had broad discretion to order restitution for any damage that was proximately caused by Murray’s criminal conduct.

¶32      When making that proximate cause determination, the court had at least some latitude to consider the conduct that had led to the protective order, and this is largely so because of the nature of the offense. After all, Murray wasn’t convicted of a crime because he contacted a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted of intentionally or knowingly contacting a person who had obtained a protective order against him. In this key sense, it was the protective order that made Murray’s communications criminal.

¶33      A protective order acts as a “mechanism” for giving victims a measure of “protection against their abusers.” State v. Hardy, 2002 UT App 244, ¶ 17, 54 P.3d 645; see also State v. Baize, 2019 UT App 202, ¶ 20 n.5, 456 P.3d 770. One of the principal ways that a protective order does this is by creating a legal barrier between the victim and the abuser. If a person who is subject to a protective order subsequently breaches that barrier, a court couldn’t realistically be expected to decide whether the victim was traumatized by the violative act by considering that act as if it had occurred in a vacuum. Given that the victim had previously obtained judicial protection from the person, the nature of the alleged prior conduct would very likely have some bearing on the interconnected questions of whether and why the illegal contact had proximately caused any trauma or harm to the victim (not to mention how much damage the victim had actually suffered).

¶34      In short, because Murray pleaded guilty to violating a protective order, the district court could consider the fact that C.M. had obtained a protective order against him as part of its restitution analysis. And from there, it then had discretion to consider the conduct that led to the issuance of the protective order, at least to the extent that such conduct could inform its decision about whether Murray’s actions proximately caused any harm to C.M.

II. Proximate Cause

¶35      Murray next argues that the evidence before the district court was insufficient to show that his criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work. We disagree.

¶36      The “proximate cause standard requires a showing that the crime, in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any new cause, produced the injury and that the injury would not have occurred absent the crime.” Blake, 2022 UT App 104, ¶ 9 (quotation simplified). The “burden is on the State to prove proximate cause,” State v. Morrison, 2019 UT App 51, ¶ 13, 440 P.3d 942, and this “requires proof of two elements: (1) but-for causation and (2) foreseeable harm,” State v. Watson, 2021 UT App 37, ¶ 15, 485 P.3d 946.

¶37      Proximate cause is generally a “fact question[] to be resolved by the fact finder.” State v. Barzee, 2007 UT 95, ¶ 81, 177 P.3d 48; see also Mackay v. 7-Eleven Sales Corp., 2000 UT 15, ¶ 7, 995 P.2d 1233 (noting that proximate cause is a fact question). Because of this, we review a district court’s finding of proximate cause for clear error. State v. Grant, 2021 UT App 104, ¶¶ 24, 35, 499 P.3d 176, cert. denied, 505 P.3d 56 (Utah 2022). Thus, when “a defendant argues that the evidence was insufficient to support a restitution order, the defendant must demonstrate that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” State v. Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6, 486 P.3d 90 (quotation simplified).

¶38      Here, we see no clear error in the court’s finding that Murray’s violation of the protective order proximately caused C.M. to miss 12 weeks of work.

¶39      At the restitution hearing, C.M. testified that she obtained the protective order because of “actions [Murray] was making to [her] in [her] sleep” that began “at the end of December of 2018.” She further agreed that this “conduct” was “the reason for the ongoing protective order.” Of note, C.M. then testified that, “as a result of the violation of the protective order,” she has “severe panic attacks,” “severe depression,” and flashbacks; that she “live[s] in fear nearly every day”; that she has a “[l]oss of trust in people” generally; that she has a “hard time concentrating or focusing”; and that she was unable “to function like [she has] always been able to.” (Emphasis added.) When C.M. was then asked whether “the problems” that she was having “interfere[d] with [her] ability to work,” she responded, “Definitely.” While she said that the “very first time” she “took leave was for a doctor’s appointment . . . back in December of 2018” (which would have predated Murray’s violation of the protective order), C.M. also agreed that she missed work “every few days, a couple hours here, a few hours there, a full day here, a few days there” until March 2020, when she was “out of work altogether and couldn’t work at all.” The district court determined that C.M.’s testimony was credible, and on appeal, we give deference to that credibility determination. See State v. Miles, 2020 UT App 120, ¶ 34, 472 P.3d 978 (noting that “because of the district court’s advantaged position in observing the witnesses firsthand, we defer to its credibility findings” (quotation simplified)); State v. Taylor, 2017 UT App 89, ¶ 10, 402 P.3d 790 (noting that “we accord deference to the trial court’s ability and opportunity to evaluate credibility and demeanor” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      As also noted, UOVC introduced evidence showing that C.M. missed “over 68 days” of work, and UOVC’s Representative testified that UOVC paid for 12 weeks of work that she missed “span[ning] from January 3rd of 2019 through March 15th of 2020” because that missed work was “related to the incident in this particular case, which is the violation of a protective order.” When coupled with C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation itself on her psyche and her ability to function, this provided an evidentiary basis for the court to find that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work.

¶41      Murray nevertheless pushes back on several fronts, none of which are availing.

¶42      First, Murray points to testimony showing that C.M. was traumatized by the alleged rape (as opposed to the protective order violation), as well as testimony establishing that C.M. began missing work even before the unlawful communication. Both things are, on this record, unquestionably true. But even if the alleged rape caused psychological trauma to C.M. on its own, and even if that trauma caused her to miss work (either before or even after January 3, 2019), this doesn’t mean that Murray’s violation of the protective order couldn’t proximately cause her to miss work too.

¶43      Again, if there was sufficient evidence to establish that C.M.’s losses were proximately caused by the communication, then those losses were compensable. The fact that the losses may have been linked to some other causal source does not change this. In civil cases, it has long been recognized that there can be multiple causes for an injury or a trauma. See, e.g.McCorvey v. Utah State Dep’t of Transp., 868 P.2d 41, 45 (Utah 1993) (confirming “there can be more than one proximate cause” of “an injury”); Steffensen v. Smith’s Mgmt. Corp., 820 P.2d 482, 486 (Utah Ct. App. 1991) (“There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury so long as each is a concurrent contributing factor in causing the injury.” (quotation simplified)). And this is true in a criminal case too. See, e.g.State v. Gonzales, 2002 UT App 256, ¶ 21, 56 P.3d 969 (“A defendant’s acts may be found to be the proximate cause of the victim’s death even if the victim actually died as a result of the combination of the defendant’s acts plus some other contributing factor.” (quotation simplified)).[5]

¶44      Here, we agree with Murray that C.M.’s trauma and associated anxiety from the violation of the protective order was likely linked in some measure to the alleged rape. As discussed above, however, the alleged rape was the very reason that C.M. had previously obtained a protective order against Murray. And as also discussed, C.M.’s testimony at the restitution hearing supported the conclusion that when Murray contacted her in violation of that order, this both exacerbated her prior trauma and caused additional trauma too, thereby further interfering with her ability to work. Given this sworn and court-credited testimony, we cannot conclude that it was against the clear weight of the evidence for the court to conclude that, even accounting for the trauma associated with the alleged rape, the violation of the protective order itself proximately caused C.M. to miss work.

¶45      Second, Murray argues that it could not have been “reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would miss 12 weeks of work” because he sent her “a single indirect text message.” As an initial matter, it’s unclear from the record if this case really does involve just a single text message. For “the purpose of determining restitution for an offense, the offense shall include any criminal conduct admitted by the defendant to the sentencing court or for which the defendant agrees to pay restitution.” Utah Code § 77-38a-302(5)(a) (2019). Here, the probable cause affidavit alleged that C.M. had “received phone calls and text messages” from Murray through their mutual friend. And in his plea affidavit, Murray agreed under oath that he “knowingly and intentionally communicate[d] with C.M. through a mutual friend . . . through phone calls and text messages.” On this record, the court could therefore assess the restitution question in light of Murray’s admission that there had been multiple communications.

¶46      In any event, whether viewed as multiple communications or even just a single communication, this argument still fails because the effect of the communication(s) can’t meaningfully be divorced from the surrounding context. Again, Murray wasn’t convicted of sending a message to a stranger with whom he had no prior history. Rather, Murray was convicted because he knowingly or intentionally communicated with C.M. in violation of a protective order. By communicating with C.M. despite the existence of an order from a judge that prohibited him from contacting her, Murray undermined the sense of distance and security that the protective order was intended to give her. Because of this context and history, we disagree with Murray’s assertion that it could not have been reasonably foreseeable that C.M. would be traumatized and miss work as a result.

¶47      Finally, Murray argues that the restitution order was at odds with our decision in State v. Bickley, 2002 UT App 342, 60 P.3d 582. We disagree. In Bickley, the defendant was charged with criminal nonsupport, and the “Amended Information listed the nonpayment period from February 1, 1997 to January 10, 2000.” Id. ¶ 3. After the defendant pleaded guilty to this offense, however, the district court awarded restitution for arrears that occurred prior to 1997. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. We reversed that decision on appeal, concluding that the court could not impose restitution for pre-1997 arrears “without making inferences.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). Because of this, we held that it was not “firmly established” that the defendant was in fact responsible for the pre-1997 arrears. Id.

¶48      Bickley is readily distinguishable. The arrears at issue in Bickley plainly fell outside the conviction (which, again, was specifically limited to arrears that occurred from February 1997 on). As discussed above, however, the offense at issue here was the violation of a protective order, and that protective order was by definition linked to some prior conduct. Thus, unlike Bickley, it’s not at all clear that this restitution order was based on damages that fell outside of the offense at issue. In addition, there’s no suggestion that the district court in Bickley based its restitution award for the pre-1997 arrears on any evidence or testimony. Id. ¶¶ 2–4, 12. This is why we faulted the court for “making inferences” and imposing restitution for arrears that were not “firmly established.” Id. ¶ 12 (quotation simplified). But again, this was not the case here, where the restitution order was based on sworn testimony from the hearing itself.

¶49      In short, we can overturn the court’s proximate cause determination only if Murray has established “that the clear weight of the evidence contradicts the court’s ruling.” Chadwick, 2021 UT App 40, ¶ 6 (quotation simplified). Having reviewed the record, we conclude that C.M.’s testimony about the effects of the protective order violation on her psyche and her ability to function, coupled with the evidence presented by UOVC about the days that she missed at work, was sufficient to support the court’s finding that Murray’s criminal conduct proximately caused C.M. to miss this work, thereby causing these damages. Because the court’s ruling was not against the clear weight of the evidence before it, we affirm that determination.

CONCLUSION

¶50      The district court erred when it required Murray to pay $744.19 in restitution for moving expenses. We accordingly vacate that portion of the court’s order. But the court did not err when it ordered restitution in the amount of $5,520.28 for lost wages. We accordingly affirm the restitution award of $5,520.28 for lost wages.

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

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[1] UOVC was represented by an attorney from the Utah Attorney General’s office who serves as “agency counsel” for UOVC.

[2] In between the court’s oral and written rulings, Murray filed a motion to reconsider. But after the written ruling was entered, Murray filed a timely notice of appeal. Despite the fact that this notice of appeal had been filed, and over an objection from UOVC, the district court subsequently held oral argument on Murray’s motion to reconsider, after which it denied the motion.

On appeal, both parties now agree that Murray’s notice of appeal divested the district court of jurisdiction to rule on the motion to reconsider. We agree with the parties. Because the motion to reconsider was filed before the written ruling, it was a prejudgment motion to reconsider the oral ruling. While the court was “free to consider” what was essentially a request for “reargument” at “any time before entering the final judgment,” Gillett v. Price, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2, 135 P.3d 861, the court did not do so. Instead, it issued the written final judgment. When Murray then filed his notice of appeal after that final judgment had been entered, his notice of appeal “divest[ed] the district court of jurisdiction.” Garver v. Rosenberg, 2014 UT 42, ¶ 11, 347 P.3d 380. Of note, our supreme court has held that a prejudgment motion to reconsider does “not toll the time for appeal once a final judgment [is] entered.” Gillett, 2006 UT 24, ¶ 7 n.2. We likewise see no basis for holding that a prejudgment motion to reconsider would somehow undermine the finality of a written final judgment or allow the court to retain jurisdiction after a notice of appeal has been filed. As a result, we agree with the parties that the only ruling properly before us is the original restitution order.

 

[3] The legislature recently amended the CVRA. The most recent version of the statute provides that the “court shall order a defendant, as part of the sentence imposed,” to “pay restitution to all victims: (i) in accordance with the terms of any plea agreement in the case; or (ii) for the entire amount of pecuniary damages that are proximately caused to each victim by the criminal conduct of the defendant.” Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a) (2023).

[4] The version of the statute that governed at the time of Murray’s sentencing did not expressly state that restitution could be awarded for damages “proximately caused” by the offense, see Utah Code § 77-38a-302(1) (2019), but our supreme court had interpreted that statute as containing such an allowance, see State v. Ogden, 2018 UT 8, ¶¶ 31–48, 416 P.3d 1132. The statute has since been amended to expressly incorporate the proximate cause standard. See Utah Code § 77-38b-205(1)(a)(ii) (2023).

[5] Something somewhat similar can be true outside the proximate cause context too. In State v. O’Bannon, 2012 UT App 71, ¶ 38, 274 P.3d 992, for example, we recognized “a basis under Utah law for holding a defendant culpable for causing death even when other factors contributed to the victim’s death.”

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In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75 – termination of parental rights vs. guardianship

In re K.R. – 2023 UT App 75

 

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF K.R. AND R.B.,

PERSONS UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.

R.S.,

Appellant,

v.

STATE OF UTAH,

Appellee.

Per Curiam Opinion

No. 20230255-CA

Filed July 13, 2023

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department

The Honorable Monica Diaz

No. 1207437

Kelton Reed and Lisa Lokken

Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes, John M. Peterson, and Carol L.C.

Verdoia, Attorneys for Appellee

Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

Before JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, DAVID N.

MORTENSEN, and AMY J. OLIVER.

PER CURIAM:

 

¶1        R.S. (Mother) appeals the juvenile court’s order terminating her parental rights with respect to K.R. (Brother) and R.B. (Sister) (collectively, the children). Mother alleges the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in determining that it was strictly necessary to terminate her rights rather than awarding permanent custody and guardianship to the children’s maternal grandmother (Grandmother). We affirm.

¶2        In January 2022, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) received a report that Mother was using drugs and neglecting Sister, who was an infant at the time. Four-year-old Brother was already living with Grandmother, and DCFS soon placed Sister with Grandmother as well.

¶3        Following a disposition hearing, the Court set a primary goal of reunification and set up a child and family plan. Mother received an initial substance abuse and mental health assessment but made no progress toward receiving treatment. She took only five of ninety-six required drug tests and tested positive on all five.

¶4        Nevertheless, Mother continued to demonstrate an attachment to the children. She participated in visits with the children on a bi-weekly basis, although she did miss some visits and had not seen the children for several weeks prior to the termination trial. The visits were supervised by a DCFS caseworker (Caseworker), and the children had to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to attend. On some occasions, Mother cancelled visits without notifying Grandmother, leading the children to make the trip unnecessarily. Brother became upset when Mother missed visits with him.

¶5        Early on, Caseworker observed Mother having “inappropriate conversations” with Brother regarding Grandmother, such as telling him that Grandmother was not properly caring for him. Caseworker would redirect Mother to more appropriate topics, and “with reminders, this behavior . . . stopped.” Mother engaged with the children during visits and planned activities for them to do together.

¶6      Grandmother and Mother used to have a good relationship, but it had deteriorated due to Mother’s drug use and the DCFS case. According to Grandmother, Brother’s behavior would “deregulate[] for a couple days” after visits with Mother and he would become belligerent toward Grandmother. Mother would send Grandmother insulting text messages, and she had trouble respecting boundaries Grandmother set. Both women indicated they would not be comfortable “co-parenting” with one another.

¶7        Following the termination trial, the juvenile court found several grounds for termination, which Mother does not challenge on appeal. The court then turned to the best interest analysis, including the question of whether termination of parental rights was strictly necessary.

¶8        The court considered whether awarding permanent guardianship to Grandmother was an alternative to termination that could “equally protect and benefit the children.” However, the court ultimately determined that termination was strictly necessary for the following reasons:

·         Mother and Grandmother “do not have a relationship” and are “unable to communicate regarding the children’s needs and wellbeing.” And while Grandmother attempts to set reasonable boundaries, Mother does not respect them. Mother herself acknowledged that “having her and [Grandmother] co-parent would not be healthy for the children.”

·         Mother had a history of making inappropriate comments regarding Grandmother to Brother during parent time. These comments led Brother to become belligerent toward Grandmother following visits. Although Mother had stopped making such comments at the direction of Caseworker, the court was concerned that she would “revert to making these comments, without the oversight of the Division.” The court found that pitting the children against their caregiver in this way was “unhealthy” for their “emotional development and wellbeing.”

·         Visits with Mother “are emotionally hard on the children.” Brother experiences behavioral problems after visits with Mother.

·        The children have to travel six-and-a-half hours round trip to visit Mother. Because Mother does not communicate with Grandmother, she does not let her know when she is unable to attend visits. This has led the children to “endure the travel time needlessly.” Additionally, it is emotionally hard on Brother when Mother misses visits. The long travel time, emotional harm due to missed visits, and Mother’s inability to communicate with Grandmother combine to undermine the children’s stability. “They need to know that their relationships are stable and that they can count on the adults in their lives. . . . [Mother] missing visits undermines and disregards the children’s psychological and emotional security.”

·        The children are happy and thriving in Grandmother’s care. She addresses their physical, mental, developmental, and emotional needs. The children are bonded to their extended family, which consists of Grandmother’s husband and other children living in Grandmother’s home. The children “need a permanent home,” and “[f]rom the children’s point of view, that home is [Grandmother’s] home.”

Based on these factors, the court found that termination of Mother’s parental rights was “strictly necessary from the children’s point of view.”

¶9        Mother challenges the juvenile court’s determination that termination of her rights was strictly necessary. “Whether a parent’s rights should be terminated presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 45, 521 P.3d 896 (quotation simplified), cert. denied, 525 P.3d 1269 (Utah 2023). “We will overturn a termination decision only if the juvenile court either failed to consider all of the facts or considered all of the facts and its decision was nonetheless against the clear weight of the evidence.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶10 Mother asserts (1) that the court did not appropriately weigh certain evidence and (2) that the court inappropriately focused on the needs of the adults rather than the children by basing its decision on Mother and Grandmother’s inability to “coparent” the children.

¶11      Before terminating a parent’s rights, the court must find that termination is “strictly necessary to promote the child’s best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 60, 472 P.3d 827. And this analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1); In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 64. “Termination is strictly necessary only when, after exploring possible placements for the child, the juvenile court concludes that no other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 15, 502 P.3d 1247 (quotation simplified). “If the child can be equally protected and benefited by an option other than termination, termination is not strictly necessary.” Id. (quotation simplified).

¶12      The strictly necessary analysis “is designed to ensure that the court pause long enough to thoughtfully consider the range of available options that could promote the child’s welfare and best interest.” In re B.T.B., 2020 UT 60, ¶ 69. “[I]f a court has complied with its statutory obligations, its resultant best interest determination is entitled to deference.” In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69. Thus, a parent’s mere dissatisfaction “with the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence . . . has no traction on appeal.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 23.

¶13      Mother argues that the court’s finding that Brother was upset when she missed visits should weigh against a finding that termination was strictly necessary. She also asserts that the court should have given more weight to her recent history of stopping her inappropriate comments to Brother rather than inferring that she was likely to resume such comments in the future. These arguments ultimately take issue with “the manner in which the juvenile court weighed the evidence” rather than its compliance with its statutory mandate. See id. The court’s findings are entitled to deference, and we will not disturb them on appeal. See In re B.W., 2022 UT App 131, ¶ 69.

¶14      Mother next asserts that the court’s focus on her and Grandmother’s inability to “co-parent” the children was inappropriate and led it to consider the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ perspective rather than the children’s perspective. See Utah Code § 80-4-301(1) (dictating that the strictly necessary analysis must be undertaken from the child’s point of view). Mother argues that a permanent custody and guardianship order does not result in “co-parenting” but rather involves “the Guardian call[ing] the shots” while “the parent has a handful of residual rights.” We take Mother’s point that co-parenting may not have been quite the right term to use in describing the relationship between a parent and a permanent guardian.[1] However, we are more concerned with the substance of the court’s analysis than the term it used. And that analysis indicates that the court’s true concern was whether it was in the children’s best interests to be pitted between a parent and guardian who could neither cooperate nor communicate with one another.

¶15      “[L]ong-term guardianship arrangements are typically only in a child’s best interest where the guardians and the parent have a working, relatively healthy relationship in which they are both willing to work together to preserve the parent-child relationship and where the child has a healthy relationship with both the guardian and the parent.” In re J.P., 2021 UT App 134, ¶ 22 (quotation simplified). Thus, when a parent and guardian have “little to no relationship,” the particular circumstances of the case may indicate that permanent custody and guardianship will not meet the children’s needs as well as termination of parental rights. See id. That is what the juvenile court found here, and such a finding was not an abuse of its discretion under the circumstances.

¶16      Furthermore, we are not convinced that the juvenile court inappropriately conducted the strictly necessary analysis from the adults’ point of view rather than that of the children. The court explicitly discussed the effect Mother and Grandmother’s inability to cooperate had on the children, finding that being put in the middle of the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children’s “emotional development and wellbeing” and undermined their stability, that the children suffered when Mother did not communicate with Grandmother about missing visits, and that Mother herself acknowledged that the conflict was “unhealthy” for the children. These findings indicate that the court considered the conflict between Mother and Grandmother from the children’s point of view in determining that the conflict made termination of Mother’s rights strictly necessary.

¶17      The juvenile court here carefully considered whether the children could be equally benefited and protected by a permanent custody and guardianship arrangement as opposed to termination of Mother’s parental rights. It also made detailed findings in support of its determination that termination was strictly necessary from the children’s point of view. Accordingly, the juvenile court’s decision to terminate Mother’s parental rights is affirmed.

 

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

[1] Nevertheless, as the guardian ad litem observes, it is not apparent from the record that Mother was “up to the tasks involved with residual parental rights,” given that she has not paid child support, has not respected the boundaries Grandmother has put in place, has not progressed past supervised visitation, and has disappointed the children by failing to communicate about missed visits.

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