State v. Argueta

Decision Date02 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20180814,20180814
Citation469 P.3d 938
Parties The STATE of Utah, Respondent, v. Carlos Walter ARGUETA, Petitioner.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

Justice Himonas, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Carlos Walter Argueta was caught in the middle of the night in A.C.’s apartment. At the scene, she complained to a police officer that Argueta had inappropriately touched her. That night, also at the scene, and after invoking his Miranda rights, Argueta refuted the allegation and offered a short, innocent explanation of what had occurred. He was later charged with burglary and forcible sexual abuse. At trial, he elaborated upon his prior explanation, while A.C. and other witnesses offered testimony to the contrary. During the trial, the State introduced two prior bad acts that Argueta committed in an attempt to rebut his innocent explanation. At the end of a two-day trial, a jury convicted Argueta on both counts.

¶2 Argueta argues that the prosecutor's comments at trial about the differences between his initial statement at the scene and his trial testimony were a violation of his constitutional right to remain silent. He also argues against the admission of the two prior acts, claiming their admission prejudiced him.

¶3 We hold that any error found or assumed in this case was not prejudicial and, as a result, not reversible. In addition, we only address the issues that are preserved for appeal, and Argueta failed to preserve his argument that A.C.’s eyewitness testimony regarding an earlier encounter between them was so unreliable as to be inadmissible. We therefore affirm the judgment of the court of appeals and the conviction underlying it.

BACKGROUND

¶4 On the night of June 6, 2015, A.C., her boyfriend (J.W.) and several of their neighbors were drinking and socializing in their next-door neighbors’ backyard.1 At some point between midnight and 2:00 a.m., A.C. decided to go to bed. She left the backyard by herself and went into her apartment. J.W. stayed outside a while longer.

¶5 A.C. and J.W. lived in a studio apartment in a house that had been converted into four separate units. Upon returning to her apartment, A.C. closed the apartment door. Because the apartment door locked automatically, she left her key in the door's lock, so J.W.—who did not have a key—could enter the apartment without waking her. She then undressed and got into her bed and under the covers. With the television on, she drifted into sleep. While she was "on the verge of getting to sleep," in "that place between deep sleep and still aware," A.C. felt someone "stroking" her vagina and "rubbing" her buttocks. A.C. was facing a wall and her eyes were closed, so she could not see who touched her. She figured that it was J.W. It was not.

¶6 Some short but unknown time after A.C. went inside, J.W. decided to retire to bed too. He came back to the apartment and saw the door slightly ajar, with the key still in the lock. Once he looked inside, he saw A.C. asleep, but not covered, which was unusual for her. While he was still standing at the doorway, a man came running towards him from inside the apartment. Startled, J.W. stopped the man, and managed to hold him up against a dresser while he repeatedly shouted, looking for an explanation for the man's presence in the apartment.

¶7 The shouting awoke A.C. She saw that J.W. was holding a man, who turned out to be Argueta. At that time, she could not see his face clearly. She told J.W. that the man had touched her. J.W. told her to call the neighbors and wrestled the man into the house's hallway. A.C. followed them, finally saw Argueta, and punched him before running out to find the neighbors and call the police. Argueta kept apologizing and tried to escape. After he managed to get out of J.W.’s grip, two other neighbors arrived and helped J.W. pin him down on the house's front lawn until the police arrived and arrested him.

¶8 After a police officer read Argueta his Miranda rights and he invoked them, Argueta overheard A.C. telling the officer that Argueta had touched her. Argueta retorted that A.C. was "a liar, that he [had] met her at a bar, ... that the keys [had been] left in the door, and that he had left the keys in the house."2 The State charged Argueta with burglary and forcible sexual abuse.

¶9 At trial, Argueta presented a more elaborate version of the events of that night. He testified that he had met A.C. and J.H., her boyfriend at the time, at a bar close to A.C.’s apartment a year to a year-and-a-half before the incident.3 They had talked and drunk until late. Before the bar closed, Argueta had offered J.H. a shot, which he had accepted and drunk. The couple had then asked Argueta to give them a ride home. He had agreed, and when they had gotten to their apartment, A.C. and J.H. had invited him in. J.H. had asked Argueta if he could borrow twenty dollars, and Argueta had given him the money. J.H. had told him, "[w]henever you want to come, I owe you $20."

¶10 Argueta testified that he had gone by the apartment "[f]ive or six times" to get the money back, usually in the early morning hours. But before the night of the charged act, he had "never attempted to enter the home because there were people in front, but [A.C. and J.H.] were not there."4 On the night of the charged act, Argueta decided to enter the house, where he saw the apartment door open and the keys in the lock. He decided to enter the house and put the keys in the apartment as "a good deed." According to his testimony, as he put the keys onto the dresser and turned to leave, J.W. came into the apartment.

¶11 Before trial, the State sought to admit evidence of several prior bad acts allegedly committed by Argueta, under rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. After a hearing, the trial court found two of the prior bad acts admissible, but only to rebut any testimony by Argueta "as to his intent with regard to his entry, if any, into the [apartment]." The two prior bad acts were a 2010 incident in which Argueta was found trespassing near another woman's house and entered a plea in abeyance5 (the trespassing incident) and a 2014 incident in which A.C. claimed she saw Argueta peeping into her apartment and confronted him (the peeping incident).

¶12 The jury convicted Argueta as charged and the court later sentenced him to two concurrent terms of one to fifteen years in prison. Argueta appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed his conviction. State v. Argueta , 2018 UT App. 142, ¶ 56, 429 P.3d 764. Pertinent here, the court of appeals held that the prosecutor did not violate Argueta's right to remain silent when, during cross-examination and closing arguments, she commented on the omissions in his initial statement at the scene. Id. ¶¶ 27, 29. Additionally, the court of appeals held that the trial court erred in admitting the trespassing incident under the doctrine of chances, but that it was harmless error. Id. ¶¶ 40, 42. Finally, the court of appeals held that Argueta had failed to preserve his argument that the peeping incident should have been excluded from evidence since A.C.’s eyewitness testimony was unreliable.6 Id. ¶ 46.

¶13 Argueta filed a certiorari petition on these three issues, which we granted. We exercise jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶14 On certiorari, "we review the decision of the court of appeals and not that of the [trial] court." State v. Hansen , 2002 UT 125, ¶ 25, 63 P.3d 650 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). And "we review the decision of the court of appeals for correctness." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). But "[t]he correctness of the court of appeals’ decision turns, in part, on whether it accurately reviewed the trial court's decision under the appropriate standard of review." State v. Apodaca , 2019 UT 54, ¶ 25, 448 P.3d 1255 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶15 In this case, one issue—the alleged constitutional violation—should be reviewed for correctness. State v. Hernandez , 2011 UT 70, ¶ 3, 268 P.3d 822. The two other issues involve the trial court's decision to admit evidence, which we "will not overturn ... absent an abuse of discretion." State v. Cuttler , 2015 UT 95, ¶ 12, 367 P.3d 981. "But whether the [trial] court applied the proper legal standard" in assessing the admissibility of that evidence is a question of law that we review for correctness." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

ANALYSIS

¶16 We granted certiorari on three questions. They are whether the court of appeals erred in concluding (1) that the cross-examination about omissions in Argueta's statement at the scene did not violate his right to remain silent, (2) that Argueta was not prejudiced by the erroneous admission of the trespassing incident, and (3) that Argueta failed to preserve his challenge to the admission of the peeping incident.

¶17 Like the court of appeals, we find that Argueta failed to preserve his argument against the admission of the peeping incident. And we cannot determine whether the trial court erred in admitting the trespassing incident under the doctrine of chances due to lack of information as we explain below. But even if we assume error, it was harmless.

¶18 Finally, we do not determine if the prosecutor's comments about Argueta's omissions in his statement at the scene constitute a constitutional violation. That is because, even assuming that such a violation occurred, we find that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and did not prejudice Argueta. Even without mentioning these omissions, the version that Argueta presented at trial cannot credibly stand when confronted with the versions offered by A.C. and the other prosecution witnesses, the circumstantial evidence, and the peeping incident.

¶19 We, therefore, affirm the court of appeals’ judgment.

I. PRIOR BAD ACTS EVIDENCE

¶20 In a pretrial ruling, the trial court...

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7 cases
  • Patterson v. State
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • August 26, 2021
    ...reaching Constitutional issues by ruling on non-Constitutional grounds. See infra ¶ 235 (citing State v. Argueta , 2020 UT 41, ¶ 55, 469 P.3d 938 ).10 Here, Patterson argues that dismissal of his petition violates his Constitutional rights. This argument is a backstop to his statutory and c......
  • Browne v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • December 7, 2022
    ... ... [ 11 ] Courts that have accepted the basic ... validity of the doctrine have been cautious not to endorse ... its use simply because a defendant is accused of committing a ... crime similar to one that the defendant previously committed ... See, e.g. , State v. Argueta , 469 P.3d 938, ... 946-47 (Utah 2020) (explaining that a court "cannot ... simply rely on the similarity between the charged ... act and the prior bad acts" to decide that the doctrine ... of chances is applicable) ...          Courts ... have upheld ... ...
  • State v. Drommond
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • July 17, 2020
    ...however, to resolving this issue in a future case in which it is necessary to do so. See , e.g. , State v. Argueta , 2020 UT 41, ¶ 55, 469 P.3d 938.B. Any Error Was Harmless Beyond a Reasonable Doubt¶99 The hearsay statements that Drommond complains of all came from Detective Kilpack's test......
  • Pleasant Grove City v. Terry
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • October 29, 2020
    ...Our allegiance to the text also compels us to refuse to creatively read that text. See, e.g. , State v. Argueta , 2020 UT 41, ¶ 54 n.12, 469 P.3d 938 (explaining that we cannot subscribe to the concurrence's view that our past opinion was a "square holding" in the case before us because the......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Article
    • United States
    • Utah State Bar Utah Bar Journal No. 34-6, December 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...evidence was inadmissible where its true purpose was to show propensity. Id. ¶ ¶ 23-25. For another, in State v. Argueta, 2020 UT 41,469 P.3d 938, our supreme court advised that trial courts require that "the party seeking to admit a prior bad act under the doctrine of chances.. .articulate......

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