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State v. Trujillo

Supreme Court of Utah

January 29, 2019

State of Utah, Respondent,
v.
Timothy James Trujillo, Petitioner.

          On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Vernice Trease No. 131907893

          Sean 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 petitioner

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

          OPINION

          Durrant, Chief Justice

         Introduction

         ¶1 Timothy James Trujillo challenges his conviction under Utah's witness retaliation statute.[1] 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.

         ¶2 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.

         Background

         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 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 for him.

         ¶5 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.

         ¶6 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 happen?"

         ¶7 The State charged Mr. Trujillo with one count of retaliation against a witness, victim, or informant under the witness retaliation statute.[2] 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.

         ¶8 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.[3]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.[4] Third, he argued that the district court abused its discretion by allowing evidence of Mr. Trujillo's gang affiliation.[5] The court of appeals denied all three claims.[6] Mr. Trujillo petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which we granted. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).

         Standard of Review

         ¶9 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."[7] In doing so, we give no "deference to its conclusions of law."[8]

         Analysis

         ¶10 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.[9] 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 threat-target.

         ¶11 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 ...


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