Meza v. State
|14 August 2015
|359 P.3d 592,2015 UT 70
|Sergio Alejandro MEZA, Petitioner–Appellant, v. STATE of Utah, Respondent–Appellee.
|Utah Supreme Court
Aaron Tarin, Hakeem Ishola, Skyler K. Anderson, West Valley, for petitioner-appellant.
Tim L. Taylor, Lance E. Bastian, Provo, for respondent-appellee.
Justice PARRISH announced the judgment of the Court and authored the opinion of the Court with respect to Part I, in which Chief Justice DURRANT, Associate Chief Justice LEE, Justice DURHAM, and Judge ROTH joined. Justice PARRISH authored an opinion with respect to Part II, in which Justice DURHAM joined. Judge ROTH authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result, in which Chief Justice DURRANT joined. Associate Chief Justice LEE authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result. Due to his retirement, Justice RONALD E. NEHRING did not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge STEPHEN L. ROTH sat. Justice DENO G. HIMONAS became a member of the Court on February 13, 2015, after oral argument in this matter, and accordingly did not participate.
Justice PARRISH, opinion of the Court in part:
¶ 1 Sergio Meza appeals the district court's dismissal of his petition under the Post–Conviction Remedies Act (PCRA) seeking to withdraw his plea held in abeyance. In the alternative, Mr. Meza invites us to invoke our extraordinary writ authority to fashion a remedy allowing him to withdraw his plea.
¶ 2 We hold that the PCRA does not apply to a successfully completed plea in abeyance and therefore affirm the district court's dismissal of his PCRA petition. We decline Mr. Meza's request that we exercise our constitutional power to fashion an alternate remedy because he has another adequate remedy. Specifically, rule 60(b)(6) of our rules of civil procedure provides a vehicle for Mr. Meza to challenge his plea. He may accordingly seek to withdraw his plea under that rule by filing a motion in the justice court where the plea was entered.
¶ 3 While represented by counsel, and pursuant to a plea-in-abeyance agreement, Mr. Meza pled no contest to charges of possession and use of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. After Mr. Meza successfully complied with the terms of the agreement, the justice court withdrew his plea of no contest and dismissed the two drug charges.
¶ 4 Mr. Meza subsequently filed an action under the PCRA seeking to withdraw his plea in abeyance. Mr. Meza argues that his attorney provided ineffective assistance by advising him that the “abeyance plea carried no immigration consequences,” when that is not the case.1 The State filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the district court could not consider Mr. Meza's PCRA claim because the only relief available under the PCRA is to set aside a conviction and the justice court had not entered a conviction against Mr. Meza. Mr. Meza responded that a plea in abeyance is a conviction under the PCRA. In the alternative, he asserted that the district court's constitutional authority allowed it to fashion a mechanism to allow him to challenge his plea.
¶ 5 The district court granted the State's motion to dismiss, concluding that the Legislature “did not intend a plea in abeyance to function as either a judgment or a conviction.” The district court did not address Mr. Meza's argument that it had constitutional authority to fashion a mechanism to allow
him to challenge his plea. Mr. Meza appealed the dismissal of his action to the court of appeals, which certified his appeal to us. We have jurisdiction pursuant to section 78A–3–102(3)(b) of the Utah Code.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶ 6 “We review an appeal from an order dismissing or denying a petition for post-conviction relief for correctness without deference to the lower court's conclusions of law.” Winward v. State, 2012 UT 85, ¶ 6, 293 P.3d 259 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The question of whether to grant a petition for extraordinary relief lies within the sound discretion of this court.” Snow, Christensen & Martineau v. Lindberg, 2013 UT 15, ¶ 22, 299 P.3d 1058.
I. THE DISTRICT COURT PROPERLY DENIED MR. MEZA'S PCRA CLAIM
¶ 7 Mr. Meza argues that the district court erred in dismissing his PCRA claim because it was properly brought under the PCRA.2 Specifically, Mr. Meza asserts that the PCRA provides a remedy for any person who challenges either a conviction or a sentence and that his plea in abeyance constitutes a conviction falling within the scope of the PCRA. The State challenges both of these points, arguing that entitlement to relief under the PCRA requires both a conviction and a sentence and that Mr. Meza was neither convicted nor sentenced because the charges against him were dismissed once he successfully complied with the terms of his plea-in-abeyance agreement.
¶ 8 We agree with the State. The PCRA provides a post-conviction remedy to persons who have been both convicted and sentenced for a crime. But under the plea-in-abeyance statute, no judgment of conviction is entered pending completion of a plea-in-abeyance agreement. Accordingly, Mr. Meza is not entitled to relief under the PCRA.
A. Both a Conviction and a Sentence Are Prerequisites to Relief Under the PCRA
¶ 9 Mr. Meza argues that a petitioner may be entitled to relief under the PCRA if he has either a conviction or a sentence. In so arguing, Mr. Meza relies on several provisions in the PCRA that reference a conviction or sentence and points to federal court decisions treating a plea in abeyance as a sentence or a conviction. See, e.g., United States v. Gorman, 312 F.3d 1159, 1165–67 (10th Cir.2002) (“Mr. Gorman's plea in abeyance was both an adjudication of guilt and a conviction.”). In response, the State acknowledges that the PCRA allows a petitioner to obtain relief from either a conviction or a sentence, but argues that the petitioner must be both convicted and sentenced before he is entitled to relief. We agree with the State and hold that the PCRA requires a petitioner to be both convicted and sentenced before he is entitled to relief under the act.
¶ 10 When faced with a question of statutory interpretation, “our primary goal is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature.” LeBeau v. State, 2014 UT 39, ¶ 20, 337 P.3d 254. “The best evidence of the Legislature's intent is the statute's plain language.” Id. “[W]e read the plain language of the statute as a whole, and interpret its provisions in harmony with other statutes in the same chapter and related chapters.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
¶ 11 The PCRA provides that “a person who has been convicted and sentenced for a criminal offense may file an action ... for post-conviction relief.” Utah Code § 78B–9–104(1) (emphasis added). The meaning of “and” in this context is clear—both a conviction
and a sentence are required before a petitioner may obtain PCRA relief. In arguing to the contrary, Mr. Meza relies on sections 78B–9–102(1) and 78B–9–104(1), which reference conviction and sentence in the disjunctive. But these sections speak not to the prerequisites for PCRA relief, but to the types of relief available. For example, section 102(1) explains that the PCRA is “the sole remedy for any person who challenges a conviction or sentence.” And section 104(1) enumerates the grounds “to vacate or modify the conviction or sentence.” While these provisions specify a petitioner's remedy for a challenged conviction or sentence, they do not dictate the conditions that a petitioner must satisfy before he is entitled to relief.
¶ 12 We are bound by the statute's plain meaning and must give effect to its requirements. Accordingly, we hold that the PCRA requires that a petitioner be both convicted and sentenced before he is entitled to relief, even though the petitioner may choose to challenge only the conviction or the sentence.
¶ 13 Having concluded that both a conviction and a sentence are required before a petitioner is entitled to any relief under the PCRA, we next address whether Mr. Meza was convicted under the PCRA.
B. Mr. Meza's Plea in Abeyance Was Not a Conviction
¶ 14 The State argues that pleas in abeyance do not qualify as convictions for purposes of the PCRA. Mr. Meza relies on federal cases construing pleas in abeyance as convictions in arguing that a plea of guilty or no contest is considered a conviction. He also points to other Utah statutes that construe a plea of guilty or no contest as a conviction. Considering the plain language of the plea-in-abeyance statute, we do not find these sources persuasive. Except in those cases where a statute specifically provides otherwise, a successfully completed plea in abeyance is not a conviction and cannot be treated as such.
¶ 15 The plea-in-abeyance statute defines a plea in abeyance as “an order by a court, ... accepting a plea of guilty or of no contest from the defendant.” Id. § 77–2a–1(1). A court may hold a plea in abeyance “[a]t any time...
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