State v. Cruz

Decision Date04 March 2021
Docket NumberNO. S-1-SC-37751,S-1-SC-37751
Citation486 P.3d 1
Parties STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Antonio CRUZ, Defendant-Petitioner.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender, Gregory B. Dawkins, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General, John Kloss, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent

VIGIL, Justice.

{1} This case serves as a reminder that fundamental constitutional rights cannot be jettisoned for the sake of judicial efficiency. At every level of our courts, the Constitution must stand as an immovable bulwark to secure the rights of individuals in every case. Central to our criminal justice system is the right to counsel, which in turn ensures the protection of all other rights. It is the right to counsel that was denied in this case.

{2} Defendant Antonio Cruz was convicted at his arraignment in the Lea County magistrate court on June 30, 2017. His conviction was obtained through an uncounseled plea of no contest to a single count of misdemeanor criminal damage to property of a household member. At arraignment, he also requested an attorney. The magistrate appointed the Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD) to represent him. One month later, an attorney from the LOPD entered an appearance in the case and sought to withdraw the uncounseled plea. The magistrate court denied the request to withdraw the plea and proceeded to sentencing. Defendant appealed. The district court dismissed the appeal without prejudice because Defendant did not bring the case to trial within six months. Subsequently, following a show cause hearing, the district court dismissed the appeal with prejudice and remanded the case to magistrate court to enforce the sentence. The Court of Appeals upheld the district court's dismissal of the case. State v. Cruz , A-1-CA-37581, mem. op. ¶ 1, 2019 WL 2750121 (May 24, 2019) (non-precedential).

{3} We granted certiorari to consider Defendant's argument that he was denied due process and received ineffective assistance of counsel. We conclude that Defendant's plea is void because the magistrate court deprived Defendant of the right to counsel and due process by accepting his plea of no contest without providing him counsel. We further conclude that the district court lacked authority to dismiss Defendant's timely-filed appeal because there is no longer a six-month rule applicable to district courts, and it is the State, not Defendant, that bears the burden of bringing a case to trial. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals’ affirmance of Defendant's conviction.

A. Adjudication at Arraignment in the Absence of Attorneys

{4} This case began when Defendant's girlfriend reported that Defendant had broken various items in her home, including dishes and a flowerpot. Defendant was arrested on the charge of misdemeanor criminal damage to property of a household member. Defendant was arraigned in magistrate court on June 30, 2017, the day after his arrest.

{5} At his arraignment, Defendant did not have counsel and asked for a public defender. The magistrate entered an order conditionally appointing the LOPD, "find[ing] that the defendant is unable to obtain counsel and desires representation by the [LOPD]."

{6} In that same proceeding—while Defendant stood accused of a crime and had requested but did not yet have counsel—the magistrate adjudicated Defendant's guilt. At the top right-hand corner of the misdemeanor arraignment form, the magistrate handwrote the words "No Contest" under the typed word "Plea." On the line marked "Defendant Plea" the magistrate checked the box for "Guilty/No Contest – proceed with Guilty Plea Proceeding form" and circled the words "No Contest[.]" On the line marked "Set For (hearing type)" the magistrate handwrote the word "Sentencing."

{7} Because "[t]he magistrate court is not a court of record[,]" NMSA 1978, § 35-1-1 (1968), there is no transcript of the arraignment. The only documents generated in court during the arraignment were the one-page arraignment sheet and the conditional order appointing the LOPD, discussed above, as well as a waiver of jury trial form and an "advice of rights per Rule 6-501 [NMRA ]" form that lists the basic rights to be explained to a defendant at arraignment under Rule 6-501(A).

B. Magistrate Court Proceedings After Counsel Entered the Case

{8} On August 4, 2017, more than one month after Defendant's arraignment and appointment of counsel, an LOPD attorney entered his appearance on behalf of Defendant. Shortly thereafter, counsel filed a motion to withdraw Defendant's uncounseled plea. He noted that Defendant did not have counsel at arraignment when he entered the plea and argued that Defendant should be permitted to withdraw his plea under the "fair and just" standard set forth in State v. Hunter , 2005-NMCA-089, 138 N.M. 96, 117 P.3d 254, aff'd on other grounds , 2006-NMSC-043, 140 N.M. 406, 143 P.3d 168. Counsel argued that Defendant, who had not completed his high school education and who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, had not entered into the plea "knowingly nor voluntarily as [he] was unable to fully comprehend the penalties and collateral consequences of his actions, nor [could] he conceptualize probable cause." Counsel also argued that Defendant's "quality of assistance was the lowest of the low—None; pro-se representation while burdened by his mental deficiencies." He argued that the State would not be prejudiced and the court would not be inconvenienced, but rather, that allowing the plea withdrawal would conserve judicial resources because "[w]ith the appointment of undersigned counsel the case should be able to reach an expedient and just resolution without the taint of any constitutional deprivations."

{9} The magistrate court set a hearing on the motion to withdraw the plea for August 25, 2017, at 9:00 a.m., the same time set for sentencing. At the hearing, the magistrate denied the motion to withdraw the plea, writing only that the court had been "sufficiently advised" and found "just cause to deny this motion."

{10} The magistrate sentenced Defendant to 364 days’ incarceration in the Lea County Detention Facility with two days’ credit for time served. The magistrate suspended the remaining 362 days and placed Defendant on supervised probation for 182 days to be followed by 180 days of unsupervised probation. Finally, the magistrate imposed a $1,000 fine, suspended $800 of that fine, and charged $123 in fees, for a total of $323.

C. District Court Proceedings

{11} On August 31, 2017, Defendant, through counsel, filed a timely appeal and demand for jury trial in the district court. See Rule 6-703(A) NMRA (providing fifteen days to file a notice of appeal from a magistrate court judgment). Neither defense counsel nor the State took any further action on the case for eight months.

{12} On April 26, 2018, the district court entered a "disposition order for lack of prosecution" on its own motion. The order dismissed the case without prejudice because "no significant action ha[d] been taken" on the case in more than 180 days. The district court did not cite a rule under which it was dismissing the case nor did it allege that Defendant had violated any specific rule. The order provided that any party could move to reinstate the case within thirty days. Thirty days passed, and no motion was filed.

{13} On June 19, 2018, the district court entered an order to show cause. The order stated that because Defendant failed to request a hearing, the appeal would be dismissed and remanded to magistrate court in ten days unless Defendant "show[ed] good cause why the appeal should not be dismissed."

{14} Defense counsel filed a response the following day. Counsel argued that "[o]n April 24 [sic], 2018, this matter was disposed of due to lack of prosecution; taking the plain meaning of the titled order the appellant operated under the belief that the matter was resolved in his favor, and that the Court would issue a remand order to the same effect." "In the alternat[ive]," counsel argued, "if this Court did not intend to dismiss the matter due to the State's failure to prosecute the de novo appeal, Defendant requests that the matter be set for a de novo trial at the Court's earliest convenience."

{15} A hearing on the order to show cause was set for July 31, 2018. Counsel appeared on behalf of Defendant, who was not present, and requested that the district court waive Defendant's appearance. The district court granted the waiver of appearance and discussion moved on to the merits.

{16} The district court noted that its order dismissing the appeal for lack of prosecution was "more appropriate in a civil case," but stated that "there is a ... criminal rule about getting these matters heard within six months." Defense counsel agreed that "matters should be heard within six months" under the unspecified rule. He stated, "I believe the case law too ... ultimately places the burden on defense counsel" and therefore "the lapse of time ultimately falls on my shoulders." Defense counsel did not explain what rule or case law informed his thinking.

{17} Defense counsel asked that the appeal not be dismissed because he had misunderstood the district court's order dismissing the appeal "for lack of prosecution" as an order dismissing the charges. He explained that he had limited practice experience in New Mexico and had a "limited knowledge ... of New Mexico case law." He stated that he had failed to request a hearing when he filed the notice of appeal because he thought that the court would schedule the hearing on its own. He asked that the court set the case for a hearing.

{18} The district court ruled as follows:

[The] court's going to go ahead and find that the notice of appeal was filed over [sic] a year ago; that this involves a criminal damage to property of a household member under $1,000; that the

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    • United States
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    ...Supreme Court recently stated, "[A]n appeal to the district court begins the trial process anew[.]" State v. Cruz , 2021-NMSC-015, ¶ 48, 486 P.3d 1. We, therefore, conclude that Defendant's pretrial motion, seeking review of legal errors committed by the magistrate court and remand for a ne......
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