Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Third District, Salt
Lake The Honorable Vernice Trease No. 131907893
D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Jeanne B. Inouye, Asst. Solic.
Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent
Nathalie S. Skibine, Christopher Jones, Salt Lake City, for
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
Timothy James Trujillo challenges his conviction under
Utah's witness retaliation statute. This statute
makes it a crime to direct a threat of harm or a
harmful action against a witness or a person closely
associated with that witness as retaliation against
that witness. It is undisputed in this case, however, that
the witnesses- who were the subject of the alleged
threat-were not present when Mr. Trujillo made the threat.
And the State has not argued that Mr. Trujillo intended to
have someone relay the threat to the witnesses, nor that it
was likely to be relayed to them under the circumstances. So
we must decide whether the statute criminalizes threats a
person makes regarding a witness outside the witness's
presence and without an intention to have the threat
communicated to the witness. We conclude that it does not.
Additionally, Mr. Trujillo argues that the district court
abused its discretion by admitting evidence of Mr.
Trujillo's affiliation with the Familia Para Siempre
gang. Because our holding regarding the witness retaliation
statute moots this issue, we need not address it.
Neither party disputes the facts underlying the legal issues
in this case. While on patrol one evening, a police officer
encountered an intoxicated minor who appeared to have been
assaulted. Although there were several people nearby, the
officer determined that none of them was the culprit. He
cited the minor for underage drinking and left. Later that
night, the officer returned to the scene after receiving a
report of a man wielding a knife.
Upon his return, the officer saw two groups of people
arguing. One of these groups included the minor encountered
previously, the minor's brother, Mr. Trujillo, and
another man. The other group consisted of three or four men
who lived nearby (neighbors). The officer detained the minor
and his brother and told Mr. Trujillo and the other man to
leave. At this point, additional police officers arrived on
the scene to act as backup, which allowed the first officer
to search the scene for evidence. He found three butcher
knives. Believing that these knives could possibly belong to
Mr. Trujillo, the officer sent the backup officers to search
The backup officers located Mr. Trujillo and the other man,
but were unable to speak with them before they ran inside a
nearby house. The officers followed, knocked on the door, and
announced that they were police officers, but they received
no response. Fearing the men might retrieve weapons, the
officers kicked down the door. The officers arrested Mr.
Trujillo and the other man and then confirmed their
identities with the first officer. The first officer then
informed Mr. Trujillo and the other man that they were being
charged with aggravated assault.
At this point, Mr. Trujillo began to argue with the officers
and proclaim his innocence. After Mr. Trujillo mentioned the
neighbors, the officers told him that the neighbors had not
been involved in the minor's assault, that they were
trying to help the minor, and that Mr. Trujillo should
"stay away from them." Mr. Trujillo responded by
saying that "if I'm being charged with [aggravated
assault]," then "my boys will be paying them a
visit, [and] and it's [the officers'] fault."
Mr. Trujillo repeated this several times before continuing,
"Do you expect me to go to . . . jail and nothing
The State charged Mr. Trujillo with one count of retaliation
against a witness, victim, or informant under the witness
retaliation statute. Following his bindover on the charge, Mr.
Trujillo filed a motion to quash, arguing that the State did
not present sufficient evidence that he made a threat of
harm. The trial court denied the motion. Later, the State
filed a motion in limine, seeking to introduce
evidence of Mr. Trujillo's gang affiliation because of
its importance in demonstrating that his comments constituted
a threat of harm. The trial court granted the motion. At
trial, the State called one of the backup officers as an
expert witness, and he testified as to the history of gangs
in prison, gang culture generally, and Mr. Trujillo's
role as a leader in the gang with which he was affiliated.
The jury convicted Mr. Trujillo, and the trial court
sentenced him to an indeterminate prison term not to exceed
five years. He appealed to the court of appeals.
Mr. Trujillo made three arguments before the court of
appeals. First, he argued that there was insufficient
evidence to support a conclusion that his statements
constituted a threat.Second, he argued that under the plain
language of the witness retaliation statute, a threat cannot
be directed against a witness unless the threat is
communicated to the witness. Third, he argued that the
district court abused its discretion by allowing evidence of
Mr. Trujillo's gang affiliation. The court of appeals denied
all three claims. Mr. Trujillo petitioned for a writ of
certiorari, which we granted. We have jurisdiction pursuant
to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).
Mr. Trujillo raises two issues before us. First, he asks us
to determine whether the court of appeals erred in concluding
that the witness retaliation statute criminalizes a threat
that was not communicated, or intended to be communicated, to
the intended target of that threat. Second, he asks us to
consider whether the court of appeals erred in affirming the
district court's determination that rule 403 of the Utah
Rules of Evidence did not preclude evidence of Mr.
Trujillo's gang affiliation. "On certiorari, we
review the decision of the court of appeals for
correctness." In doing so, we give no "deference to
its conclusions of law."
Mr. Trujillo argues that the court of appeals incorrectly
interpreted the requirements of the witness retaliation
statute. That court interpreted the statute as requiring only
that a threat be made regarding the witness. Mr. Trujillo, in
contrast, interprets the plain language of the statute as
requiring threats to reach, or at least be intended to reach,
the targeted witness. We agree with Mr. Trujillo and conclude
that the witness retaliation statute only criminalizes
threats that the threat-maker intended to convey to the
Additionally, Mr. Trujillo argues that the district court
abused its discretion by admitting evidence of his
affiliation with the Familia Para Siempre gang. Because our
holding regarding the witness ...