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United States v. Titus

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

March 2, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
LESTER E. TITUS, Defendant - Appellant.

          Magistrate Judge, Robert T. Braithwaite




         This matter is before the court on Appellant Lester E. Titus's appeal from the United States Magistrate Court for the District of Utah.[1] Mr. Titus was charged with a misdemeanor and convicted for knowingly and willfully failing to obtain a Special Recreation Permit and pay required fees before conducting a group bike ride to Corona Arch. Mr. Titus contends he was deprived of his right to a jury trial and that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. For the reasons stated below, the court vacates Mr. Titus's conviction and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this order.


         In July 2014, Mr. Titus was charged with knowingly and willfully violating 43 U.S.C. § 1701 and 43 C.F.R. § 2932.57(a)(1). Section 1701 states the policy of the United State with respect to federal land management. It directs that regulations and rules be developed to ensure public lands are properly managed and protected. See 43 U.S.C. § 1701(a). Section 2932.57(a)(1) constitutes one of those regulations and states that a person “must not . . . [f]ail to obtain a Special Recreation Permit and pay the fees required by this subpart.” 43 C.F.R. § 2932.57(a)(1). It warns that if a person is convicted “of failing to obtain a Special Recreation Permit, ” the person “may be subject to a sentence of a fine or imprisonment or both for a Class A misdemeanor in accordance with 18 U.S.C. 3571 and 3581 et seq.” Id. § 2932.57(b)(1). Failing to pay required fees may, however, subject a person only “to a sentence of a fine not to exceed $100 for the first offense, or a sentence of a fine and or imprisonment for a Class A or B misdemeanor . . . for all subsequent offenses.” Id. § 2932.57(b)(2).

         In 2012, Mr. Titus organized and conducted a bike tour in the Needles Overlook Area on BLM land south of Moab. Because Mr. Titus did not obtain a Special Recreation Permit or pay required fees, Officer Tyler Fouss issued a citation to him. Officer Fouss explained the permitting requirements to Mr. Titus at that time, including that he could not conduct an event on public land without following those permitting requirements.

         Approximately two years later, the events leading to this case occurred. Officer Fouss learned that Mr. Titus was advertising another commercial bike tour. Officer Fouss saw the advertisement on April 16, 2014. The bike tour was scheduled for May 29, 2014 through May 31, 2014, with the first day of the tour including a one-and-a-half-mile hike to Corona Arch. A few days before the bike tour, Officer Fouss verified that Mr. Titus had not obtained a Special Recreation Permit or paid the required fees. He therefore went to the Corona Arch trailhead on May 29, 2014 and watched Mr. Titus take his group up the trail. When they returned, Office Fouss issued Mr. Titus a second citation.

         When Mr. Titus first advertised the bike tour and hike, Corona Arch did not fall within the boundaries of land owned by the BLM. Rather, the State of Utah owned and managed Corona Arch as a School and Institutional Trust Lands (“SITLA”) parcel. On May 8, 2014, however, the State transferred the parcel to the BLM. Despite this transfer, twenty days later, the marquee at Corona Arch trailhead still informed Mr. Titus and his group that Corona Arch was on State trust lands.

         Although the Corona Arch parcel had been owned and managed by the State until May 8, 2014, the trailhead, the parking lot by the trailhead, and the one-and-a-half-mile trail to the arch have always been owned by the federal government. On the day of the hike, a smaller sign by the marquee informed visitors that the area was a bighorn sheep lambing area and to keep dogs on a leash at all times. There were two BLM logos on the sign. A registration box stood part way up the trail. The box contained a map, and a BLM logo and a registration sheet were visible if one opened the lid. No markings existed on the outside of the box. Finally, there was a marker on the trail that had a BLM logo on it.

         During a bench trial on April 23, 2015, Mr. Titus argued that the small logos on the bighorn sheep sign and the trail marker were insufficient to put him on notice that he was on BLM land, especially when compared to the larger marquee that identified the trail as state land. Moreover, because no evidence was presented that he had signed the registration list or even opened the registration box's lid, Mr. Titus argued the box provided no notice he was on BLM land. The trial court rejected Mr. Titus's arguments and concluded the evidence was sufficient to show he knowingly failed to obtain a Special Recreation Permit and pay required fees. Mr. Titus timely filed this appeal.



         The scope of an appeal to the district court from a bench trial before a magistrate judge “is the same as in an appeal to the court of appeals from a judgment entered by a district judge.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 58(g)(2)(D). This means “this court reviews a magistrate judge's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo.” United States v. Fronk, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95397, at *10 (D. Utah July 11, 2014). On challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the court “reviews de novo whether the government presented sufficient evidence to support [a] conviction.” Id. (citing United States v. Sells, 477 F.3d 1226, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)). The evidence, however, must be viewed “in the light most favorable to the prosecution.” Id. (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). Therefore, the court must determine whether a reasonable fact finder “could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the direct and circumstantial evidence, together with the reasonable inferences to be drawn ...

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