State v. Ailer

Docket NumberDA 22-0347
Decision Date28 November 2023
Citation2023 MT 231 N
PartiesSTATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. MATTHEW RYAN AILER, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Submitted on Briefs: August 2, 2023

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. CDC-2014-98 Honorable Kathy Seeley, Presiding Judge

For Appellant:

Matthew Ailer, Self-Represented, Missoula, Montana

For Appellee:

Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, Katie F. Schulz, Selene Koepke, Assistant Attorneys General, Helena, Montana

OPINION

JAMES JEREMIAH SHEA, JUSTICE

¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion, shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

¶2 Matthew Ryan Ailer appeals from the First Judicial District Court order granting his motion to dismiss his charge after completion of his deferred sentence. Ailer also appeals the portion of the order denying his outstanding motions as moot because of the dismissal of his underlying criminal conviction.[1] We affirm.

¶3 Ailer was convicted of theft by common scheme in December 2015. The District Court deferred imposition of Ailer's sentence for six years and ordered Ailer to pay a total of $70,477.87 in restitution and associated fees. We affirmed his conviction on direct appeal in State v. Ailer 2018 MT 18, 390 Mont. 200, 410 P.3d 964. Ailer completed his deferred sentence without revocation.

¶4 Pursuant to § 46-18-204, MCA, the District Court granted Ailer's motion to strike the jury's verdict from the record and dismissed the charge against Ailer with prejudice. The District Court's order nullified the remaining $66,727.87 of unpaid restitution and required all records and data relating to the charge be designated as "confidential criminal justice information."[2] The District Court dismissed Ailer's outstanding motions for relief from formal order, to have wrongful charges dismissed, and to adjust or waive restitution without reaching their merits, reasoning the dismissal of the criminal case precluded the court from any further avenues of relief.

¶5 We review a district court's decision to grant or deny a post-trial motion in a criminal case for abuse of discretion. State v. Erickson, 2018 MT 9, ¶ 10, 390 Mont. 146, 408 P.3d 1288 (citation omitted). Whether a case or issue is moot presents a question of law, which we review for correctness. Wilkie v. Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co., 2021 MT 221, ¶ 6, 405 Mont. 259, 494 P.3d 892 (citations omitted).

¶6 "A district court abuses its discretion if it acts arbitrarily without conscientious judgment or exceed[s] the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice." State v. Rossbach, 2022 MT 2, ¶ 12, 407 Mont. 55, 501 P.3d 914 (citation omitted).

¶7 After imposing a deferred sentence, a district court may dismiss the criminal case and accompanying conviction after the time during which the sentence has been deferred is completed, provided no revocation proceedings are ongoing. Section 46-18-204, MCA.

¶8 By the time the District Court granted Ailer's motion to dismiss under § 46-18-204, MCA, the time during which imposition of his sentence had been deferred had passed and the State's petition to revoke had been dismissed. As such, Ailer satisfied all statutory criteria for dismissal after a deferred imposition of sentence. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in granting Ailer's motion to dismiss.

¶9 An issue presented at the outset of an action may, due to some intervening event or circumstance, become moot; that is, it ceases to exist or is no longer capable of adjudication. State v. Benn, 2012 MT 33, ¶ 9, 364 Mont. 153, 274 P.3d 47. "The fundamental question to be answered in any review of possible mootness is whether it is possible to grant some form of effective relief to the appellant." Wilkie, ¶ 8 (citation omitted). When there is no effective relief available to the court, "[a]ny further ruling in such a case would constitute an impermissible advisory opinion." Wilkie, ¶ 8 (citation omitted).

¶10 The District Court concluded Ailer's three outstanding motions became moot when it granted Ailer's motion to dismiss the criminal case from which he sought relief. Ailer effectively seeks reversal of his own requested relief so he can continue to litigate his contention that he was wrongfully convicted.

¶11 Ailer relies on cases holding collateral legal consequences of a conviction can establish a justiciable controversy when a petitioner mounting an attack on the validity of the conviction or sentence was not in custody or the sentence had expired. See, e.g., Pollard v. United States, 352 U.S. 354, 77 S.Ct. 481 (1957); White Sulphur Springs v. Voise, 136 Mont. 1, 343 P.2d 855 (1959); State v. Sandley, 192 Mont. 54, 626 P.2d 248 (1981). Ailer's reliance on this line of cases is misplaced. In those cases, the defendants had merely completed their respective sentences. In this case, Ailer not only completed his sentence, but successfully sought relief from it by moving the District Court for dismissal under § 46-18-204, MCA. Unlike the cases upon which Ailer relies, in which the conviction survived the expiration of the sentence, Ailer's conviction has been extinguished.

¶12 By way of analogy, the State relies on State v. Benn. In Benn, we held that the defendant's death while his appeal was pending mooted the appeal and ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Benn, ¶ 16. While not squarely analogous, the case is instructive. In this case, it is the demise of Ailer's conviction, rather than the defendant himself, that precludes the District Court from granting further relief or reaching the merits of Ailer's motions.

¶13 Ailer's arguments regarding the collateral consequences flowing from the criminal case against him are unpersuasive. Section 46-18-204(1), MCA, provides in relevant part that a court dismissing a felony charge after deferred imposition of sentence "shall strike . . . the verdict of guilty from the record and order that the charge or charges against the defendant be dismissed." Once a charge is dismissed under this section, "the defendant has no 'conviction' as contemplated by the persistent felony offender statute." State v. Gladue, 209 Mont. 235, 240, 679 P.2d 1256, 1259 (1984). Dismissal after a deferred sentence negates the effect of that conviction for purposes of stacking offenses and sentence enhancements in future prosecutions. State v. Tomaskie, 2007 MT 103, ¶¶ 15-16, 337 Mont. 130, 157 P.3d 691 (regarding stacking offenses); State v. Thibeault, 2021 MT 162, ¶ 14, 404 Mont. 476, 490 P.3d 105 (regarding sentence enhancements). The impact of Ailer's now dismissed charge is further dampened by Montana's restoration of rights statute, which states:

Except as provided in the Montana constitution, if a person has been deprived of a civil or constitutional right by reason of conviction for an offense and the person's sentence has expired or the person has been pardoned, the person is restored to all civil rights and full citizenship, the same as if the conviction had not occurred.

Section 46-18-801, MCA.

¶14 In certain circumstances, a moot case may still be justiciable under one of three exceptions to the mootness doctrine. The first exception arises when the alleged wrong is capable of repetition but evades review. Cape v. Crossroads Corr. Ctr., 2004 MT 265, ¶ 25, 323 Mont. 140, 99 P.3d 171 (citation omitted). This requires: (1) "the challenged conduct is inherently of limited duration, so as to evade review"; and (2) "there [is] a reasonable expectation the same complaining party [will] be subject to the same action again." Havre Daily News, LLC v. City of Havre, 2006 MT 215, ¶ 34, 333 Mont. 331, 142 P.3d 864 (citing Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 17-18, 118 S.Ct. 978, 988 (1998)).

¶15 Ailer cannot establish the applicability of this exception because, even assuming the first prong of this inquiry can be met, he cannot show a reasonable expectation he will be subject to the same criminal charge or the State's accompanying conduct again. The charge against Ailer has been dismissed with prejudice.

¶16 The second exception applies when a defendant voluntarily ceases their actionable conduct to avoid an undesirable judgment on the merits. Wilkie,...

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