State v. Barrett

Decision Date05 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. 20040963.,No. 20040763.,20040763.,20040963.
Citation2005 UT 88,127 P.3d 682
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Petitioner, v. The Honorable William W. BARRETT, Respondent. James Kida Pauu and Inoke Vimahi, Real Parties in Interest.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Mark L. Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., J. Frederic Voros, Jr., Asst. Att'y Gen., Byron F. Burmester, Salt Lake City for petitioner.

Brent M. Johnson, Salt Lake City, for respondent.

Joan C. Watt, Vernice S. Trease, John D. O'Connell, Jr., Salt Lake City, for real parties in interest.

DURRANT, Justice:

¶ 1 To resolve these consolidated petitions for extraordinary relief, we must determine whether a district court's reduction, for sentencing purposes, of a first degree felony with a gang enhancement1 to a second degree felony without an enhancement constitutes an impermissible two-degree reduction of the charged offense. If so, we must determine whether it is appropriate to utilize our extraordinary writ powers to nullify such a reduction. We conclude that a district court's removal of a gang enhancement is, in effect, a one-degree reduction of the charged offense. Therefore, reducing a first degree felony with a gang enhancement to a second degree felony without an enhancement amounts to a two-degree reduction from the level of the charged offense and is impermissible absent consent from the prosecutor. Because we conclude that such a reduction is outside the bounds of a district court's discretion, and because we consider this case to present a significant legal issue in need of resolution, we nullify the reductions at issue in this proceeding and direct the district court to enter new orders consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 The State of Utah initiated this original proceeding by filing two petitions for extraordinary relief, each claiming that the district court, when recording the convictions of James Pauu and Inoke Vimahi, impermissibly reduced the degree of the offense to which the defendants pleaded guilty. Pauu and Vimahi were initially charged with three first degree felonies: aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, and theft. When charging the defendants, the State alleged that Pauu and Vimahi committed the offending acts in concert with two or more persons and were therefore subject to an enhanced penalty in relation to each proven offense as outlined in Utah's gang enhancement statute, see Utah Code Ann. § 76-3-203.1 (2003).

¶ 3 Before their trial commenced, however, both Pauu and Vimahi entered into plea agreements with the State. Pursuant to their plea agreements, Pauu and Vimahi pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, a first degree felony, and also admitted that the crime was committed in concert with two or more persons, triggering the gang enhancement.2 In exchange for the defendants' guilty pleas, the State dropped the aggravated burglary and theft charges.

¶ 4 After entering their pleas, Pauu and Vimahi each filed a motion with the district court requesting a one-degree reduction of the aggravated robbery charges for sentencing purposes. The defendants claimed that reducing the degree of the charged offenses from first degree felonies with gang enhancements to simple second degree felonies was appropriate under the circumstances. Both motions were made pursuant to Utah Code section 76-3-402, which grants sentencing judges the discretion to "enter a judgment of conviction for the next lower degree of offense and impose sentence accordingly" if it would be "unduly harsh" to record the conviction as charged. Id. § 76-3-402(1).

¶ 5 The State opposed the motions, arguing that sentencing the defendants to the penalty applicable to the charged offense was not "unduly harsh" when the characters of the defendants and the violent nature of their actions were considered. Additionally, the State contended that the court was foreclosed from granting the defendants' request that the court reduce the first degree offenses with enhancements to second degree offenses without enhancements. Specifically, the State argued that such a reduction amounted to a two-degree departure from the level of the charged offense, a reduction outside the bounds of the court's discretion absent consent from the prosecutor. See id. § 76-3-402(3). After considering the parties' arguments, the district court reduced Pauu's and Vimahi's offenses from first degree felonies with enhancements to second degree felonies without enhancements. Pauu and Vimahi subsequently received sentences corresponding to a second degree felony — specifically, one to fifteen years in prison.

¶ 6 Although the State felt the district court committed error by engaging in such a reduction, the State was unable to appeal the appropriateness of the district court's action, as at the time the challenged reductions were made, the Utah Code prevented the State from pursuing a direct appeal challenging the appropriateness of such reductions. See id. § 77-18a-1(2) (Supp.2004) (outlining specific situations where the prosecution may pursue a direct appeal).3 Consequently, the State filed two petitions for extraordinary relief pursuant to rule 65B(d), claiming that the district court, by reducing first degree felonies with enhancements to second degree felonies without enhancements, violated the Utah Code's prohibition against two-degree reductions absent the approval of the prosecution. See id. § 76-3-402(3) ("An offense may be reduced only one degree under this section unless the prosecutor specifically agrees . . . . In no case may an offense be reduced . . . by more than two degrees."). We consolidated the two petitions for the purposes of our review. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78-2-2(2) (2002).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 7 The parties to this proceeding have focused extensively, both during briefing and at oral argument, on identifying the standard of review applicable to this case. In doing so, they have concentrated their efforts on elucidating an explanation of an apparent distinction drawn in our case law between cases in which extraordinary relief is available based upon a simple abuse of discretion by a lower court and cases in which extraordinary relief is available only if the lower court grossly and flagrantly abused its discretion. Because our jurisprudence in this area has led to much confusion, we take this opportunity to clarify our prior pronouncements regarding the scope and standard of review in rule 65B(d) extraordinary relief proceedings.4

¶ 8 This court's ability to grant extraordinary relief has its origins in the state constitution, which vests the state supreme court with "original jurisdiction to issue all extraordinary writs." Utah Const. art. VIII, § 3. The Utah Constitution also grants this court the ability to enact rules governing judicial procedure. Id. art. VIII, § 4. Pursuant to our rulemaking authority, we have promulgated rule 65B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, which outlines the general mechanics of an extraordinary relief proceeding and designates the types of situations in which extraordinary relief may be attainable. See Utah R. Civ. P. 65B.

¶ 9 Rule 65B provides that, "[w]here no other plain, speedy and adequate remedy is available, a person may petition the court for extraordinary relief on any of the grounds" identified in the rule. Id. 65B(a). The grounds for relief relevant to the present dispute are enumerated in subsection (d) of rule 65B, which addresses the wrongful use of judicial authority and the failure to perform a duty. Id. 65B(d). Specifically, the relevant portion of rule 65B states as follows:

Appropriate relief may be granted: (A) where an inferior court. . . exceeded its jurisdiction or abused its discretion; (B) where an inferior court . . . has failed to perform an act required by law as a duty of office, trust or station; (C) where an inferior court . . . has refused the petitioner the use or enjoyment of a right or office to which the petitioner is entitled . . . .

Id. 65B(d)(2). The rule goes on to define the appropriate scope of review when a court is confronted with a petition for an extraordinary writ challenging a lower court's action or inaction, stating that "[w]here the challenged proceedings are judicial in nature, the court's review shall not extend further than to determine whether the respondent has regularly pursued its authority." Id. 65B(d)(4). To determine the practical effect of the rule's terms, a brief history and analysis of the rule is necessary.

¶ 10 Our decision in Renn v. Utah State Board of Pardons, 904 P.2d 677 (Utah 1995), provides a thorough examination of the origins of rule 65B and identifies the concerns the rule was designed to address. Specifically, in Renn we discussed in some detail the common law writs of certiorari and mandamus and acknowledged that rule 65B subsumed those writs. 904 P.2d at 682. We noted that, "[w]ith the promulgation of Rule 65B of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, the common law forms and procedures for extraordinary writs were abolished in keeping with modern concepts of pleading and practice . . . ." Id.; see also Utah R. Civ. P. 65B(a) ("There shall be no special form of writ."). As within the rules of civil procedure, the movement toward simplification of the writ process also led to a revision of the state constitution, which at one time listed each type of writ that was within this court's jurisdiction to grant, but which was amended in 1984 to read simply that the supreme court has jurisdiction to issue "all extraordinary writs." See Judicial Article Revision, 1984 Utah Laws 2d spec. sess. 268, 269.

¶ 11 Although the practice of specifically listing each available common law writ has been abandoned, Renn makes clear that the remedies provided by those writs remain available. 904 P.2d at 682. As a result, rule 65B can be thought of as a repository of all the extraordinary writs that, in the past, were envisioned as separate and distinct proceedings....

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