428 P.3d 1038 (Utah 2018), 20170323, State v. Martinez-Castellanos

Docket Nº:20170323
Citation:428 P.3d 1038, 2018 UT 46
Opinion Judge:Durrant, Chief Justice.
Party Name:STATE of Utah, Appellant, v. Abisai MARTINEZ-CASTELLANOS, Appellee.
Attorney:Sean D. Reyes, Att’y Gen., Christopher D. Ballard, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellant Aaron P. Dodd, Provo, for appellee
Judge Panel:Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.
Case Date:August 29, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Utah

Page 1038

428 P.3d 1038 (Utah 2018)

2018 UT 46

STATE of Utah, Appellant,



No. 20170323

Supreme Court of Utah

August 29, 2018

Page 1039

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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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.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals


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

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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

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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...

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