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State v. Boyden

Supreme Court of Utah

March 20, 2019

State of Utah, Petitioner,
Honorable Ann Boyden and Bela A. Fritz, Respondents.

          On Petition for Extraordinary Relief Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Judge Ann Boyden No. 16192620

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., John J. Nielsen, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for petitioner

          Brent M. Johnson, Nancy J. Sylvester, Salt Lake City, for respondent Judge Ann Boyden

          Lori J. Seppi, Isaac E. McDougall, Salt Lake City, for respondent Bela A. Fritz

          Justice Pearce authored the opinion of the Court in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Petersen, Judge Appleby, and Judge Pohlman joined.

          Having recused themselves, Chief Justice Durrant and Justice Himonas did not participate herein. Court of Appeals Judges Kate A. Appleby and Jill M. Pohlman sat.


          Pearce, Justice.


         ¶1 In this somewhat unconventional proceeding, the State seeks to overturn a conviction it recently obtained. The State appears convinced of the defendant's guilt but nevertheless claims it has convicted the wrong person and wants to correct that error. The person the State convicted-that is, the person who was sent to prison for the crime-opposes the State's efforts.

         ¶2 The district court rebuffed the State's attempt to fix the situation with a motion made under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), reasoning that the court had lost jurisdiction over the case and that the State needed to proceed under the Post-Conviction Remedies Act (PCRA). The State petitions us for extraordinary relief and asks that we direct the district court to "exercise jurisdiction over the State's motion for relief under rule 60(b) . . . and vacate the judgment and conviction . . . based upon the defendant's fraud." We conclude that the district court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the State's motion and that rule 60(b), not the PCRA, provides the mechanism through which the State may bring its challenge. We grant the writ and direct the district court to entertain the State's motion.


         ¶3 The defendant[1] was driving a vehicle that appeared to be unregistered and uninsured when Salt Lake City police pulled him over. During the traffic stop, police searched the vehicle and discovered drugs, drug paraphernalia, and a firearm.

         ¶4 The defendant allegedly identified himself as Bela Fritz. It is unclear what measures the State undertook to confirm the defendant's identity, but the State apparently followed his lead and believed he was Bela Fritz. The State charged and prosecuted the defendant under the name Bela Fritz.[2] The defendant moved through the criminal justice proceedings as Bela Fritz, at all times representing himself to be that person.

         ¶5 The State charged Bela Fritz with several offenses: possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a first degree felony, see Utah Code § 58-37-8(1)(a)(iii); purchase, transfer, possession or use of a firearm by a restricted person, a third degree felony, see id. § 76-10-503(3)(a); and possession of drug paraphernalia, a class B misdemeanor, see id. § 58-37a-5(1). Following plea negotiations, the State reduced the first offense to attempted possession, a second degree felony. The second offense remained unchanged, and the State dismissed the third offense. The defendant pleaded guilty to the reduced charges. A presentence report was then prepared with respect to Bela Fritz, recommending that he be sentenced to imprisonment for the term directed by statute. See id. § 76-3-203(3).

         ¶6 At sentencing, the district court reduced the judgment of conviction on the first offense to a third degree felony, applying Utah Code section 76-3-402.[3] The district court then ordered that Bela Fritz serve a term of imprisonment of up to five years for each offense, with the sentences to run concurrently. The defendant was then transported to the Utah State Prison.

         ¶7 When the defendant arrived at the Prison, a Department of Corrections officer allegedly discovered that the defendant was not who he claimed to be. The problem, according to the officer, was that the two men did not look enough alike. During the intake process, the officer viewed a photo of Bela Fritz that the Department had on file and observed that it "did not resemble the person standing in [his] office." The officer then asked the defendant to confirm personal information regarding his identity, and the defendant allegedly confessed that he had used Bela Fritz's identity rather than his own. The officer ran the issue up the chain of command, and eventually the State was notified that the Prison believed the defendant was not, in fact, Bela Fritz.

         ¶8 Less than a month after final judgment had been entered against Bela Fritz, the State returned to the district court claiming the defendant had misled it about his identity. The State moved under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to vacate the conviction, sentence, and judgment. The State informed the district court that the defendant had allegedly "assumed [the] name of another actual person" for purposes of the criminal proceeding. Thus, the State argued, it had erroneously convicted the defendant as "Bela Fritz," and the defendant had been sentenced against the backdrop of Bela Fritz's criminal background.

         ¶9 The State noted that the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure "govern in any aspect of criminal proceedings where there is no other applicable statute or rule." Utah R. Civ. P. 81(e). Arguing that no other statute or rule governed these "unusual circumstances," the State asserted that rule 60(b) filled the gap. Applying subsection (b)(3), the State asked the district court to vacate the conviction, sentence, and judgment based on the defendant's fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct. See id. 60(b)(3). In the alternative, the State urged the district court to invoke subsection (b)(6), which authorizes a court to grant relief from a judgment, order, or proceeding for "any other reason that justifies relief." Id. 60(b)(6). The State also moved for a misplea, citing the fraud the defendant allegedly perpetrated on the court.

         ¶10 The district court denied the motion. The court reasoned that following imposition of a valid sentence, a district court loses subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Accordingly, the court concluded it had no authority to "consider and decide the issues presented." Even if it had jurisdiction, the court noted, "a [r]ule 60(b) set aside and declaration of misplea [would not be] warranted." In the court's view, the PCRA "establishe[d] the sole remedy" for the State to challenge the conviction and sentence. See Utah Code § 78B-9-102(1)(a). In addition, the court's "authority to rescind acceptance of a guilty plea [was] specifically limited to the window before sentencing and judgment" and "that window [had] closed."

         ¶11 The State moved the court to reconsider. The State pointed to language in the PCRA authorizing "a person who has been convicted and sentenced for a criminal offense [to] file an action." Utah Code § 78B-9-104(1). The State asserted that because it had been neither convicted nor sentenced, the PCRA offered the State no avenue to relief. The State also claimed that if the sentence and judgment were vacated pursuant to its rule 60(b) motion, the court could also address the State's motion for a misplea.

         ¶12 Again, the district court denied the motion, concluding that the State had neither asserted the court had jurisdiction nor directed the court to authority to support the exercise of jurisdiction. Undeterred, the State tried again, filing a motion to reconsider the denial of its motion to reconsider. The State asserted that rule 60(b) provided the court with jurisdiction to consider the issues the State had raised. And the State implored the court to act because "the Defendant's fraudulent act of obtaining a conviction in the name of another, real person" had resulted in an "innocent person now ha[ving] a record of conviction for enhanceable crimes, including a violent felony."

         ¶13 The third time was not a charm. The district court again declined. Citing its earlier ruling, the court rejected rule 60(b) as a basis for jurisdiction or relief. This time, however, the court refused to address whether the State might obtain relief through a PCRA petition, stating the issue was an "abstract" question "not properly before" it. The conviction, sentence, and judgment against Bela Fritz were thus left intact even though ...

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