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State v. Martinez-Castellanos

Supreme Court of Utah

August 29, 2018

State of Utah, Appellant,
Abisai Martinez-Castellanos, Appellee.

          On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Fourth District, Nephi The Honorable James M. Brady No. 101600146

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Christopher D. Ballard, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellant.

          Aaron P. Dodd, Provo, for appellee.

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.


          Durrant, Chief Justice.


         ¶1 Abisai Martinez-Castellanos was charged with two counts of possession of or use of a controlled substance and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia after a highway trooper discovered drugs and drug paraphernalia in his vehicle during a traffic stop. Before his trial began, his counsel failed to involve him in the jury selection process. His counsel also filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop evidence but repeatedly failed to file any memorandum in support of the motion.

         ¶2 After the jury convicted Mr. Martinez-Castellanos, the trial court, on its own accord, issued notice that it was considering granting a new trial because of his trial counsel's ineffectiveness during the jury selection and motion to suppress stages. The court appointed separate conflict counsel to represent Mr. Martinez-Castellanos on the issues it raised. But conflict counsel chose to act as a "friend of the court" instead of representing Mr. Martinez-Castellanos. Conflict counsel argued against Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's interests, asserting that his trial counsel's failure did not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court thereafter declined to grant a new trial.

         ¶3 Mr. Martinez-Castellanos appealed his conviction, arguing that his counsel was ineffective during the jury selection and the motion stages, and that the trial court erred in its dealings with conflict counsel. While the court of appeals agreed that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's three claims constituted errors, it concluded that none of these errors warranted reversal on its own. It did so, in part, because it could not determine whether, absent trial counsel's error, Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's motion to suppress would have been meritorious. But the court did hold that the cumulative effect of these errors undermined its confidence that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos received a fair trial. So it reversed his convictions and ordered a new trial with new counsel.

         ¶4 The State challenges the court of appeals' determination, arguing that the errors cited by the court did not harm Mr. Martinez-Castellanos in the slightest and so the cumulative error doctrine cannot apply. We agree. Without a determination that the motion to suppress is meritorious, at least two of the three errors at issue cannot conceivably cause harm to him, so they cannot cumulate into reversible error. So we reverse the court of appeals' decision. With such a determination, however, these errors would not only be harmful, they would constitute reversible error on their own. So we cannot uphold Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's conviction, because the court of appeals failed to determine whether his motion to suppress was meritorious. We therefore remand this case to the court of appeals to make this determination.


         The Traffic Stop

         ¶5 In June 2010, Abisai Martinez-Castellanos was driving his car on Interstate 15 through Juab County.[1] A trooper, who had just finished up a traffic stop on the opposite side of the highway, observed Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's car traveling northbound. The trooper got in his patrol car and, with his emergency lights still engaged, crossed the median and accelerated in order to get closer to Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's car. Once the car was within view, the trooper noticed that the California license plate of the vehicle was missing a registration sticker-a requirement on vehicles registered in California. The trooper proceeded to pull Mr. Martinez-Castellanos over.

         ¶6 Once his vehicle was pulled to the side of the road, Mr. Martinez-Castellanos provided the trooper with an expired Colorado license and registration, but he assured the trooper that he had a valid Utah Driver license. While discussing Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's information, the trooper testified that he noticed Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was "a little bit jittery" and was "bouncin' around a little bit." The trooper then proceeded to check Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's information in his patrol car and also ran a warrants and background check. The trooper verified that the car was indeed registered and that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos had a valid Utah Driver license. But he also discovered that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos had miscellaneous theft charges dating back to 1997, charges for drug offenses in 2001 and 2006, and that he had his probation revoked in 2007 for possessing a controlled substance. Based on this criminal history, along with Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's jittery movements, the trooper testified that he had a "heightened" suspicion that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos "might be [under] the influence of something."

         ¶7 The trooper then returned to the car and asked Mr. Martinez-Castellanos to step out of the vehicle. Before administering several field sobriety tests, the trooper asked Mr. Martinez-Castellanos if he had any weapons, to which he responded that he had two work knives in the center console. After conducting field sobriety tests, the trooper concluded that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was under the influence of a controlled substance. The trooper also concluded, based on Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's criminal history, that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was a restricted person who could not legally possess knives. The trooper then arrested Mr. Martinez-Castellanos and searched his car. His search revealed two pocket knives, a marijuana grinder, a lighter, two glass pipes, a wrapper containing three pills that later tested positive for methamphetamine, and a wrapper containing several prescription pills.

         ¶8 The trooper took Mr. Martinez-Castellanos to jail, where he admitted that he had smoked marijuana. The trooper obtained a warrant for a blood draw, which tested positive for THC metabolite at a level consistent with recent marijuana use. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's blood tested negative for a number of other drugs, including methamphetamine. He also admitted that the knives were his but claimed to know nothing about the other drugs and paraphernalia in his car.

         ¶9 The State charged Mr. Martinez-Castellanos with counts of drug possession, paraphernalia possession, and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.

         The Motion to Suppress

         ¶10 Before trial, Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's appointed trial counsel filed a motion to suppress the evidence from the car and the blood draw, asserting that the evidence was unconstitutionally seized. But trial counsel did not file an accompanying memorandum with the motion. The trial court then held an evidentiary hearing on the motion where the trooper testified for the prosecution and was cross-examined by trial counsel. At the end of the hearing, trial counsel requested thirty days to "submit a brief on the matter," which the trial court granted. But trial counsel again failed to file a timely brief. A week after it was due, trial counsel submitted a motion "request[ing] additional time in which to file his brief regarding the suppression of evidence." The court again granted the motion, but trial counsel again failed to file a brief supporting the motion. Having received nothing from trial counsel, the State finally submitted its own memorandum in opposition to the motion to suppress. Again, trial counsel did not respond, and the court eventually denied the motion.

         ¶11 About two weeks after the motion was denied, trial counsel moved to set aside the court's decision and requested additional time to file a memorandum in support of the motion. The court granted the request, giving counsel an additional week to file his supporting memorandum. But instead of filing a memorandum in support, trial counsel eventually filed a motion captioned "Submission of Motion to Suppress," which stated that counsel "submits the Motion to Suppress Evidence to the Court based upon the transcript of the suppression hearing." The trial court thereafter reinstated its prior order denying the suppression motion, noting that trial counsel had yet again failed to file a supporting memorandum.

         ¶12 But trial counsel was not done yet. Two days before trial, he moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the dash-cam video demonstrated that there was "no basis" for the stop. No memorandum in support was filed with this motion. The trial court again denied the motion.

         Jury Selection and Trial

         ¶13 Before trial began, twenty-six members of the jury pool filled out juror questionnaires and were asked background questions in open court about matters that might influence their opinions of the case. After completing these background questions, thirteen potential jury members were called back to the trial court's chambers for individual questioning by him and the attorneys. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was not invited, however, into the chambers by the court or his counsel, and he remained in the courtroom while further questioning of the potential jury members took place.

         ¶14 Once in chambers, the court and attorneys asked the individual jury members follow-up questions to their answers in open court.[2] Three of the potential jurors called into chambers were of particular concern. The most concerning, the individual who eventually sat on the jury as Juror One, revealed in chambers that he was a retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper who had forty years' worth of experience in drug interdiction on Utah's highways (a significant portion of which was spent on the stretch of highway where Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was arrested), and had participated in "many jury trials." He also acknowledged that he knew the arresting trooper, but he stated he would not give the trooper's testimony "more weight," but "would make up his mind based on the facts presented in court." He also "assured [both counsel] that he knew how to be fair, and that he could be fair if selected as a juror."

         ¶15 As to the other two jurors of concern, the individual who eventually sat as Juror Two revealed in chambers that she had been a victim of a violent crime, that her son had been prosecuted in California for drugs, that she was against drugs, and that she believed "that if a person had drugs in the car, they were probably guilty." And the individual who eventually sat as Juror Six was "reluctant to disclose what was going on in her own mind." When the court asked if she could be fair and impartial, she expressed "reservations about her ability to function as a juror." The court asked her the same question again and she responded that "she understood what the judge wanted and she believed she could serve as a juror."

         ¶16 After these questions, each of the thirteen prospective jurors was dismissed from the judge's chambers, and the court asked the attorneys whether they had any issues with a particular prospective juror and whether the attorneys passed the prospective jurors for cause. There is no evidence that any concern was raised about a particular prospective juror or that any were actually challenged for cause.

         ¶17 At the conclusion of the in-chambers questioning, the attorneys returned to the courtroom. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's trial counsel did not discuss with him what had occurred in chambers and did not mention the possible biases of the three potential jurors. Trial counsel simply exercised his four peremptory strikes without consulting Mr. Martinez-Castellanos. Counsel did not strike Jurors One, Two, or Six.

         ¶18 The court named the eight members of the jury, which included Jurors One, Two, and Six, and a one-day trial was held. The jury convicted Mr. Martinez-Castellanos of two felonies for possession or use of a controlled substance and two related misdemeanors.

         Post-Trial Proceedings

         ¶19 A week after the trial, the trial court issued a notice sua sponte, indicating that it was considering granting a new trial pursuant to rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure. The notice stated that "the court is concerned with a question of whether any error or impropriety occurred in this case which may have had a substantial adverse effect on the rights of the defendant." Specifically, the court identified two events that, in its view, demonstrated Mr. Martinez-Castellanos possibly received ineffective assistance of counsel: "Defense counsel's failure to file any memorandum following an evidentiary hearing on [Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's] motion to suppress"; and "Defense counsel's failure to challenge or remove a potentially biased juror [(Juror One)] from the jury on the day of trial."

         ¶20 In the course of a subsequent hearing on the matter, the court concluded that it was no longer concerned with the "potentially biased juror" issue due to a recent Utah Court of Appeals' decision. The court did decide, however, to appoint conflict counsel to represent Mr. Martinez-Castellanos in post-trial proceedings regarding the motion to suppress issue. The court expressed its concern with "[w]hether or not the evidence . . . supported the continued retention of [Mr. Martinez-Castellanos] after [the trooper] determined that the vehicle was registered," and "whether there was . . . justification for having [Mr. Martinez-Castellanos] step out of the car and further perform . . . field sobriety tests" when the trooper discovered that the car was registered to Mr. Martinez-Castellanos, that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was who he said he was, and that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos had a valid Driver license. The court was also concerned with "whether there was reasonable suspicion." The court instructed conflict counsel to address whether trial counsel's failure to file any memorandum on the motion to suppress issue constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

         ¶21 About a month later, conflict counsel submitted a memorandum entitled "Amicus Brief." Conflict counsel began his brief by stating that he was acting "as a friend of the Court." He did not address the concerns the court expressed regarding the extended duration of the traffic stop in his brief, but instead addressed only whether trial counsel's failure to file the memorandum rose to a level of ineffective assistance of counsel. He laid out the two-part Strickland analysis for ineffective assistance of counsel and applied it in this case. Then, surprisingly, conflict counsel argued that Mr. Martinez-Castellanos could not meet the prejudice prong of the Strickland test, noting that it "is difficult, if not impossible to find that [Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's counsel's] failure to file a legal memorandum could satisfy the second prong of the Strickland test." He concluded his brief by stating that the district court's earlier denial of the motion to suppress was sufficient to include "an implicit determination that the facts elicited at the evidentiary hearing" supported a lawful search. He therefore advised the court that its decision denying the motion had addressed the concerns it had raised. He did not advocate for a different result on Mr. Martinez-Castellanos's behalf.

         ¶22 The State did not file a response to conflict counsel's brief but rather concurred with the findings of conflict counsel. The trial court agreed with conflict counsel's conclusion and withdrew its notice. The court dismissed conflict counsel and reinstated trial counsel to represent Mr. Martinez-Castellanos through the rest of the proceedings. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos was subsequently sentenced to zero to five years in the Utah State Prison. The court suspended the sentences and placed him on probation.

         ¶23 Trial counsel then filed a timely motion for a new trial, asking the court to suppress the evidence from the traffic stop and blood draw, and noting that the trial court itself had expressed concern with this evidence. Once again, however, trial counsel failed to file a supporting memorandum. Instead, he simply attached the transcripts of the preliminary hearing, the suppression hearing, and the trooper's trial testimony. In the motion, trial counsel did argue that there was "a substantial change in the [trooper's] testimony regarding the reason for the stop and the time and delay in the stop" during these hearings. And, in light of the change in testimony, trial counsel argued that the order denying the motion to suppress "should be set aside and reconsidered." But counsel did not further flesh out this issue. The State opposed the new motion as untimely and inadequate, and the trial court denied the motion without explanation. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos thereafter timely appealed his convictions.

         The Court of Appeals' Decision

         ¶24 Before the court of appeals, Mr. Martinez-Castellanos argued that trial counsel was ineffective during jury selection and in his efforts to litigate the motion to suppress. Mr. Martinez-Castellanos also argued that the trial court committed plain error in failing to provide him with competent conflict counsel to address the court's post-trial notice. A majority panel of the court of appeals concluded that each of these three assertions identified an error, but that none of these errors alone warranted reversal.[3]

         ¶25 The court of appeals first reviewed trial counsel's actions during jury selection and concluded that counsel was deficient when he "fail[ed] to provide Martinez-Castellanos a meaningful opportunity to participate in the [jury selection] process-either through physical presence in chambers or at minimum through consultation afterward."[4] But it concluded that this error did not meet the prejudice prong of the Strickland test. The court reasoned that in order for Mr. Martinez-Castellanos to show prejudicial error under Strickland, he must show "that a biased juror actually sat."[5]And because it believed "the limited record in this case permits no ...

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