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State v. Cuttler

Court of Appeals of Utah

September 7, 2018

State of Utah, Appellant,
v.
James Robert Cuttler Sr., Appellee.

          Fourth District Court, Provo Department The Honorable Lynn W. Davis No. 121402748

          Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellant

          Emily Adams and Cherise M. Bacalski, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and Kate A. Toomey concurred.

          CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

         ¶1 The State charged James Robert Cuttler Sr. with six first-degree felonies, including rape of a child, sodomy upon a child, and aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Due to a previous conviction for sodomy upon a child, each count potentially subjected Cuttler to an enhanced penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cuttler ultimately agreed to plead guilty to one count of rape of a child without the enhancement, which carried a 25-years-to-life prison sentence. Before sentencing, Cuttler moved to withdraw his guilty plea and the district court granted that motion after an evidentiary hearing. The State appeals. We agree with the State that the district court exceeded its discretion in granting Cuttler's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and we therefore reverse.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 In October 2012, a seven-year-old child reported to authorities that Cuttler engaged in sexual intercourse with her. Soon after the report, the State charged Cuttler with two counts each of rape of a child, Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-402.1 (LexisNexis 2012); sodomy on a child, id. § 76-5-403.1; and aggravated sexual abuse of a child, id. § 76-5-404.1. Because Cuttler has a prior conviction of sodomy on a child, each of the six charges carried the possibility of an enhanced penalty, subjecting Cuttler to life in prison without the possibility of parole. See id. §§ 76-5-402.1(2)(b)(ii), -403.1(2)(b)(ii), -404.1(5)(c).

         ¶3 The State notified Cuttler of its intent to introduce evidence of his prior conviction for sexually molesting two different victims in another state, but the district court concluded that the evidence would be excluded at trial. On interlocutory appeal, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the district court's order. See generally State v. Cuttler, 2015 UT 95, 367 P.3d 981. Pending disposition of the evidentiary issue in the supreme court, Cuttler allegedly fled from Utah while on pretrial release, resulting in the State filing additional charges against him.

         ¶4 Following the supreme court's decision and the new charges, the State offered Cuttler a plea deal for global resolution of all charges. It offered to let him plead guilty to one count of rape of a child in exchange for the State's agreement to remove the enhanced life-without-parole penalty on that charge, to dismiss the remaining five charges, and to dismiss the separate case for fleeing the jurisdiction. Cuttler agreed to these terms. In the written plea agreement, Cuttler acknowledged that "[he] did have sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 14," which constituted a first-degree-felony rape of a child and carried a punishment of "25 years to life."

         ¶5 At the plea hearing, the prosecutor informed the court that Cuttler intended to plead guilty to rape of a child, identifying it as "Count I without the enhancement. That is a mandatory 25 to life, however." During the plea colloquy, the district court identified the sentence as "25 years to life . . . in the Utah State Prison" and asked Cuttler if he understood that the charge carries a "mandatory 25 years to life" sentence. Cuttler responded "Yes." The district court also stated that the charge required mandatory imprisonment, which Cuttler acknowledged he understood. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found Cuttler to be "proceeding voluntarily, knowingly[, ] and with full understanding," and it subsequently endorsed his guilty plea.

         ¶6 Prior to sentencing, conflict counsel appeared on behalf of Cuttler and moved to withdraw his guilty plea, which motion the State opposed. The district court held an evidentiary hearing at which Cuttler and his prior Plea Counsel testified.[1] Cuttler explained, "[W]e discussed 25 to life, not mandatory 25 to life." Cuttler could not recall whether his Plea Counsel had ever used the word "mandatory" in their discussions of the sentence or if counsel had advised him that the judge would have the ability to reduce the sentence below 25 years. Cuttler argued that his plea was not knowingly made, because "he did not understand that the Court lost discretion to reduce his sentence below 25 years in prison."

         ¶7 The district court ultimately agreed that Cuttler's plea was not made knowingly. Specifically, the court determined that, by entering the plea,

[Cuttler] was subjecting himself to a mandatory sentence that included time in the Utah State Prison for a term of 25 years to life. However, he did not know that he was subjecting himself to a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years. He understood that the sentence was mandatory, but in no part of the record was he made aware that the sentence was a minimum mandatory ...

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