In re Ragas

Citation859 S.E.2d 827
Decision Date08 June 2021
Docket NumberA21A0237
Parties IN RE RAGAS.
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)

859 S.E.2d 827



Court of Appeals of Georgia.

June 8, 2021

Daniel Duane Morgan, for Appellant.

Erik John Pirozzi, Cartersville, for Appellee.

McFadden, Chief Judge.

Arnold Ragas appeals from the trial court's order finding him in criminal contempt of court. Because the evidence was insufficient to find him in criminal contempt, we reverse.

1. Facts and procedural history.

In reviewing a criminal contempt conviction, we consider "whether after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." In re Irvin , 254 Ga. 251, 256 (2), 328 S.E.2d 215 (1985).

So viewed, the evidence showed that Ragas represented a defendant, Ricky Taylor, in three criminal proceedings in which Taylor entered a global plea agreement. Among other things, Taylor's sentence required him to complete a twelve-month Extension Residential Recovery Program. As part of the sentence, Taylor was to "remain in jail until accepted and space is available." The prosecutor handwrote that requirement on the sentencing order and underlined the phrase "remain in jail" so that the sheriff's office would know that Taylor could not be released from jail unless he had been accepted into the rehabilitation program and space was available for him.

On November 27, 2019, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Ragas picked up Taylor and drove him to a treatment center where he was interviewed but not accepted into a rehabilitation program due to a lack of available bed space. Ragas then drove Taylor to a restaurant and left him there with Taylor's brother.

On December 3, Ragas appeared in court on unrelated matters before the judge who had sentenced Taylor. At that time, he did not inform the court or the district attorney's office about what had occurred with Taylor the previous week.

On December 4, Taylor failed to report to his probation officer, who informed Ragas that she was going to take out an arrest warrant for him. The next day, Ragas contacted the trial court and the prosecutor by email. He told them what had happened with Taylor after he picked up the defendant from jail and sought clarification from the court about whether Taylor would be arrested if he

859 S.E.2d 830

reported to probation. An arrest warrant was issued that day. At he time of Ragas's contempt hearing Taylor remained at large.

The trial judge issued a criminal contempt citation against Ragas based on what she deemed to be "acts of disregard for or disobedience to the order of the [c]ourt" and Ragas's "lack of candor" with the court between the date of the defendant's release (November 27) and the date of Ragas's email to the court (December 5). The trial judge asserted that Taylor's sentence clearly required him to remain in custody until he was accepted into the treatment center and space was available for him; she never gave Ragas permission to take Taylor anywhere other than the treatment center and Ragas should have returned Taylor to jail when he learned Taylor would not be accepted into the center; and Ragas should have communicated with her sooner about what had happened with Taylor.

The trial judge recused herself, and the newly-assigned judge conducted a hearing on the contempt citation. At the conclusion of the hearing, she stated that the burden of proof was "clear and convincing evidence, and I find clear and convincing evidence." The court then issued an order that found Ragas in criminal contempt of court for the reasons alleged in the citation, and concluded that Ragas's actions were willful. The order did not address the standard of proof for criminal contempt.

On appeal, Ragas argues that the trial court applied the wrong standard of proof and that the evidence was insufficient to support his criminal contempt conviction. As detailed below, we agree with both claims of error.

2. Standard of proof.

A conviction for criminal contempt requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In re Crane , 253 Ga. 667, 670 (2), 324 S.E.2d 443 (1985). In this case, the trial court's only statement as to the standard of proof was erroneous, and she never corrected herself.

Under most circumstances, this error would require us to vacate the order and remand the case for the trial court to apply the proper standard to the existing record, even though Ragas did not object to the trial court's mention of the incorrect standard at the hearing. See Mathis v. Corrugated Gear & Sprocket , 263 Ga. 419, 421 (5), 435 S.E.2d 209 (1993) (where record does not indicate whether trial court applied the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard, we must vacate the judgment of contempt and remand the case to the trial court for application of that standard); In re A. S. , 293 Ga. App. 710, 712-173 (2), 667 S.E.2d 701 (2008) (because adjudication under erroneous standard of proof raised a question of whether juvenile, who had been adjudicated delinquent, was deprived of a fair trial, the case was remanded for application of the correct standard even though juvenile had not objected to incorrect standard).

But remand for application of the correct standard is not appropriate where the evidence is legally insufficient to support the conviction, because the state cannot rectify evidentiary deficiencies on remand. See Brantley v. State , 272 Ga. 892, 893, 536 S.E.2d 509 (2000) (under Double Jeopardy Clause, remand for further proceedings is inappropriate if evidence is legally insufficient to support conviction); Tanks v. State , 292 Ga. App. 177, 178, 663 S.E.2d 812 (2008) (protection of Double Jeopardy Clause attaches in nonsummary criminal contempt proceeding).

Ragas enumerated as error the sufficiency of the evidence. That enumeration is wholly proper. Review of the sufficiency of the evidence is a core responsibility of an appellate court. Indeed, until recently, our Supreme Court reviewed the sufficiency of the evidence in all murder cases, and continues to do so in death-penalty cases — whether or not the appellant had raised the issue. Davenport v. State , 309 Ga. 385, 392 (4), 846 S.E.2d 83 (2020).

Of course, when an appellate court reviews the sufficiency of the evidence, it does so with due deference to the role of the fact finder. That deference is accomplished by adhering to the applicable standard of review. Under the standard applicable here, "we accept the trial court's

859 S.E.2d 831

findings on disputed facts and credibility of witnesses unless clearly erroneous, but independently apply the legal principles to the facts." Doricien v. State , 310 Ga. 652, 656 (3), 853 S.E.2d 120 (2020) (citation omitted). In Georgia, unlike the federal appellate courts, the clearly-erroneous standard is synonymous with the any-evidence standard. Hall v. Ault , 240 Ga. 585, 586, 242 S.E.2d 101 (1978).

If the evidence, viewed under that deferential standard, is legally insufficient, a reviewing court must find it so, in which case, under the Double Jeopardy Clause, " ‘the only just remedy available for that court is the direction of a judgment of acquittal.’ " Brantley , 272 Ga. at 893, 536 S.E.2d 509 (quoting Burks v. United States , 437 U.S. 1, 18 (III), 98 S.Ct. 2141, 57 L.Ed.2d 1 (1978) ).

3. Sufficiency of the evidence.

The trial court based the contempt judgment on two grounds: Ragas's failure to obey his client's sentencing order, and Ragas's failure to inform the trial court that his client was in violation of the sentencing order. The evidence was insufficient to find Ragas in contempt for either.

(a) Failure to obey client's sentencing order.

The judge who presided over the criminal trial listed Ragas's disobedience of the sentencing order in her citation for contempt. The judge who thereafter found Ragas to be in contempt also cited his disobedience to the sentencing order as a ground for her finding. And the state argued both below and on appeal that Ragas was in contempt for violating the sentencing order.

The sentencing order in this case was not directed to Ragas. It was directed to Ragas's client, the sentenced defendant Ricky Taylor, requiring Taylor to remain in jail unless he was admitted to a rehabilitation facility. The sentencing order did not require Ragas to take any action or refrain from any action; it did not mention Ragas at all.

Generally "[a] person cannot be found in contempt of a court order or...

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