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Utah Supreme Court: Appeal of Plea in Justice Court Doesn’t Vacate Judgment

The Court’s January 28, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Alexie Kamoe. She was charged in the Utah Justice Court with three counts: (1) Driving with a measurable controlled substance in the body, (2) Possession or use of marijuana, and (3) Failure to obey a traffic control device. Kamoe moved to suppress blood-test evidence, which the justice court denied.

With the aid of counsel, Kamoe negotiated with the prosecutor and reached an agreement to dismiss counts two and three and the amendment of count one to a single count of impaired driving. The justice court accepted Kamoe’s guilty plea and sentenced her to 180 days in jail, but it suspended the sentence and ordered Kamoe to serve two days in jail, pay a $1,420 fine, and complete an alcohol/substance abuse evaluation and comply with any recommended treatment.

Kamoe appealed her conviction to the district court, which resulted in the justice court staying her sentence pending appeal. In the district court, Kamoe again moved to suppress the blood-test evidence. That motion was denied. Kamoe filed to withdraw her appeal and requested the case be remanded to the justice court. That motion was granted.

Back in the justice court, Kamoe requested the stay be lifted and her judgment be reinstated. The prosecutor objected, arguing that under Utah Code § 78A-7-118(3) the original Judgment was voided upon the appeal. The prosecutor also refused to extend the same offer and insisted on going to trial on all three of the original charges.

The justice court agreed with the prosecutor and denied Kamoe’s request for reinstatement. Kamoe filed in the district court for a petition for extraordinary remedy, alleging the justice court exceeded its jurisdiction and abused its discretion. The district court denied the petition, and the Utah Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction after the court of appeals certified the case to the high court.

At issue was the effect of an appeal from a negotiated plea in justice court on the defendant’s Judgment. Utah Code § 78A-7-118(3) provides: “If an appeal under Subsection (1) is a plea entered pursuant to negotiation with the prosecutor, and the defendant did not reserve the right to appeal as part of the plea negotiation, the negotiation is voided by the appeal.” Subsection (1) provides a defendant is entitled to a trial de novo in the district court only if the defendant files a notice of appeal within 28 days of sentencing.

The State argued the final clause of 118(3) voids upon appeal, not just the pre-plea agreement but also the conviction, sentence, and commitment, i.e., the Judgment. Kamoe asserted the Judgment remains in place unless it’s supplemented by a new judgment in the district court.

The Utah Supreme Court concluded that where the district court renders a new judgment, the prosecutor has the right to take the plea deal off the table and try the defendant on all the original charges. The Court found that “the plain language of 118(3) demonstrates that ‘negotiation’ means only the pre-plea agreement between the prosecutor and defendant and does not include the associated Judgement.”

The Court concluded, first, that the phrase “pursuant to” indicates that the “plea” follows but does not include the “negotiation.” Next, “the phrase ‘negotiation with the prosecutor’ implies that ‘negotiation’ is merely what occurs between the defendant and prosecutor.” The prosecutor has no authority over the Judgment, as that is solely within the purview of the court.

The high court determined that 118(3) makes statutory the concept that a conditional plea allows the defendant to appeal a specific issue and retain the benefits of the plea negotiation if the appeal is denied. It also makes clear that an appeal from a standard plea is not limited to any particular issue that may have been the focus of pre-plea negotiations, and neither the district court nor the prosecutor is bound by the negotiations in the justice court.

“Regardless of the district court’s ruling on the motion to suppress, the defendant can either proceed toward an unknown outcome or withdraw the appeal prior to entering the guilty plea or the commencement of trial,” the Court wrote. “The latter option is exactly what Kamoe did here,” the Court noted.

To accept the State’s argument would “punch[ ] a major hole” in the statutory framework of the Utah Code that governs the original jurisdiction of justice courts and the appellate jurisdiction of district courts, the Court explained.

Justice courts have original jurisdiction over class B and C misdemeanors, violation of ordinances, and infractions committed within the justice court’s territorial jurisdiction. Meanwhile, district courts have appellate jurisdiction over judgments and orders of the justice court as outlined in § 78A-7-118(3). That section allows a defendant who pleads guilty or is convicted in the justice court to file a notice of appeal and seek a “trial de novo” in the district court.

The State’s position “is antithetical to this jurisdictional system,” according to the Court. If Kamoe’s appeal of her negotiated plea vacated the Judgement of the justice court, there would be no judgment over which the district court could assume appellate jurisdiction. Additionally, the Court explained that would mean the justice court stayed a sentence that no longer existed.

Thus, the Court held an appeal under 118(3) does not void the Judgment of the justice court. It also held it has a duty to correct the lower court’s erroneous interpretation of subsection 118(3) and grant Kamoe the relief she sought.

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Related legal case

Kamoe v. Ridge



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