District Court, Duchesne Department The Honorable Samuel P.
Chiara No. 001800104
C. Cundick, Attorney for Appellant
D. Reyes and Kris C. Leonard, Attorneys for Appellee
Kate A. Toomey authored this Opinion, in which Judges Michele
M. Christiansen and David N. Mortensen concurred.
David Isaac Ricketts appeals the decision of the district
court denying his motion to lower the degree of offense for
his previous conviction. We affirm.
In 2001, Ricketts pleaded guilty to the operation of a
clandestine laboratory, a first degree felony. He was
sentenced in 2002 to an indeterminate prison term of five
years to life, and he was released from prison in 2005.
In 2014, Ricketts filed a motion to lower the degree of
offense for that conviction. He argued that section 76-3-402
of the Utah Code allows a court, in certain circumstances, to
reduce the level of offense for a conviction by one degree.
He further argued that the version of the code in effect at
the time of his sentencing allowed a court, even after
sentencing, to enter a judgment of conviction for the next
lower degree of offense. The State agreed that the
appropriate version of the code to consider was the version
in effect at the time of sentencing in 2002. But the State
argued that the applicable statute still did not allow the
district court to enter Ricketts's conviction at a lower
degree because its plain language allowed a reduction only
before sentencing, not after.
The district court agreed with the State and determined the
first subsection of section 402 "provide[d] the
sentencing court with authority to reduce the level of the
conviction and then sentence the defendant accordingly"
but did not provide the "authority to reduce the level
of conviction at a later date." See Utah Code
Ann. § 76-3-402(1) (Lexis 1999). The court also
determined that "the sections subsequent to section (1)
provide[d] for reduction of the [level of offense] after
sentencing has taken place" but "require[d] the
stay of a prison sentence in order for a defendant to qualify
for a reduction in [the level of offense]." See
id. § 76-3-402(2). Because Ricketts's sentence
was not stayed, the court concluded he did not qualify for a
reduction under section 402 and denied his motion.
Ricketts appeals, contending the district court erred in
determining it lacked the authority to reduce the level of
his offense. "We review a trial court's denial of a
motion to reduce the degree of a conviction for abuse of
discretion." State v. Salt, 2015 UT App 72,
¶ 9, 347 P.3d 414. But we "review the district
court's interpretation of a statute for
correctness." State v. Kropf, 2015 UT App 223,
¶ 7, 360 P.3d 1.
When interpreting statutes, we first look to the plain
language. State v. Barrett, 2005 UT 88, ¶ 29,
127 P.3d 682. Section 402(1) stated:
If the court, having regard to the nature and circumstances
of the offense of which the defendant was found guilty and to
the history and character of the defendant, concludes it
would be unduly harsh to record the conviction as being for
that degree of offense established by statute and to sentence
the defendant to an alternative normally applicable to that
offense, the court may unless otherwise specifically provided
by law enter a judgment of conviction for the next lower
degree of offense and impose sentence accordingly.
Utah Code Ann. § 76-3-402(1).
We agree with the district court that Ricketts was not
eligible for a reduction under this subsection. Section
402(1) provided courts with authority to reduce a level of
offense at the time of sentencing and did not give courts
authority to reduce a level of offense at a later date. The
2002 statute stated that a court may "enter a
judgment of conviction for the next lower degree of
offense and impose sentence accordingly" if it
"concludes it would be unduly harsh to record the
conviction as being for that degree of offense
established by statute." Id. (emphases added).
This language contemplated that a court has authority to
enter a judgment of conviction at a lower degree before a
sentence is imposed-at the time the judgment is entered and
the conviction is recorded. The statute did not authorize a
court to reduce the degree of offense at any other time.
Additionally, in interpreting this version of section
76-3-402, our supreme court has stated, "If a sentencing
judge is convinced that the penalty applicable to the charged
offense is unduly harsh under the circumstances, the judge
can reduce the degree of the offense when recording the
conviction." Barrett, 2005 UT 88, ¶
31 (emphasis added). And once a court imposes a valid