State v. Finley

Docket Number22-0023
Decision Date08 November 2023
PartiesState of West Virginia v. Charles Lee Finley
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

WOOTON, J., concurring, in part, and dissenting, in part:

In a decision noteworthy for its seeming lack of understanding of the way criminal law and procedure are actually practiced in West Virginia state courts, the majority undermines the principles which underlie and are the foundation for the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure - in particular Rule 2 and Rule 11(a)(2) - and may have compromised the conditional plea agreement as a mechanism for challenging a circuit court's ruling on an issue of statutory construction. Accordingly, I concur in the Court's judgment and agree with its determination that possession of methamphetamine standing alone, is insufficient to sustain a charge of possession of pseudoephedrine in an altered state under West Virginia Code section 60A-10-4(d) (2020). However, I vehemently dissent from the Court's determination that this case presented a question of fact rather than a question of law - a determination that underpins the majority's surprising holding that an issue of statutory construction such as this cannot be raised in a motion to dismiss,[1]and/or thereafter by entry of a conditional guilty plea pursuant to West Virginia Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2) (discussed infra in greater detail). The majority's holding unnecessarily unravels the practical, common-sense procedure traditionally utilized in this State. Noted scholar and jurist Franklin D. Cleckley cautioned that to the extent the provisions of Rule 11(a)(2) are disregarded or no longer viewed as a fair and expeditious method of resolving unsettled questions, both the State and defendants will be forced to go through a jury trial to resolve a legal issue that is not dependent upon whether sufficient facts exist for a conviction - a waste of time money and judicial resources. See State v. Lilly 194 W.Va. 595, 605, 461 S.E.2d 101, 111 (1995) (Cleckley, J., concurring) ("By invoking Rule 11(a)(2), the parties not only eliminated the need for a protracted trial, but paid the ultimate respect to limited judicial resources and judicial economy. To be specific, the appropriate use of a conditional guilty plea by a criminal defendant serves the interests of justice by, inter alia, safeguarding the defendant's right to appeal and promoting judicial economy. See State v. Forshey, 182 W.Va. 87, 93, 386 S.E.2d 15, 21 (1989) (forcing party to go through an unnecessary trial is a "'pointless and wasteful exercise'") (Miller, J., dissenting). (Citation omitted).").

Seemingly oblivious to these concerns, the majority invokes the plain error doctrine to resolve an issue neither raised nor argued by the parties: that the circuit court erred "by finding a factual basis for the plea to attempt to possess pseudoephedrine in an altered state, when the evidence was that Mr. Finley ['the petitioner' or 'Mr. Finley'] possessed methamphetamine." That is a mischaracterization of what happened here. See text infra. The majority unnecessarily complicates the straightforward procedure employed by defense counsel, the State, and the circuit court, whereby Mr. Finley entered a conditional guilty plea in order to seek appellate review of a purely legal question of statutory interpretation. See Syl. Pt. 1, Appalachian Power Co. v. State Tax Dep't of W.Va., 195 W.Va. 573, 466 S.E.2d 424 (1995) ("Interpreting a statute or an administrative rule or regulation presents a purely legal question subject to de novo review.") (emphasis added); W.Va. R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2) (discussed infra in greater detail).

Use of the plain error doctrine, which the majority notes in a footnote should be used "sparingly" (surely an unintentional irony) was wholly unnecessary. I would have reversed the circuit court's decision on the straightforward legal issue raised in Mr. Finley's conditional guilty plea: that, as a matter of law, a charge under section 60A-10-4(d) could not lie where a defendant possessed only completed methamphetamine, and no other drugs.[2] I would then have remanded this case for further proceedings consistent with the agreed-upon terms of Mr. Finley's conditional plea agreement.

Mr. Finley was indicted by a Wayne County grand jury on four counts, including one count of possession of pseudoephedrine in an altered state. During the course of pre-trial proceedings he filed a pretrial motion to dismiss as set forth supra. The State countered that methamphetamine is "a substance containing . . . pseudoephedrine . . . in a state or form which is, or has been altered or converted from the state or form in which [this] chemical[] [is], or [was], commercially distributed[.]" Id. In essence, the State's position was that there is altered pseudoephedrine in methamphetamine, and accordingly possession of completed methamphetamine necessarily means that one is also in possession of altered pseudoephedrine. The circuit court agreed with the State and denied Mr. Finley's motion to dismiss this charge from the indictment. Thereafter Mr. Finley entered into a conditional plea agreement with the State,[3] wherein he specifically reserved his right to appeal the denial of the motion to dismiss. On appeal to this Court, he presented precisely the same challenge to the statute.

It should be noted that Mr. Finley's entry of his conditional guilty plea and the circuit court's acceptance of the plea were entirely consistent with our established procedure:

Before accepting a conditional plea under W.Va. R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2), the circuit court and the prosecutor must assure that the pretrial issues reserved for appeal are case dispositive and are capable of being reviewed by this Court without a full trial. This requires the circuit court to make specific findings on the record of the issues to be resolved upon appeal and a further specific finding that those issues would effectively dispose of the indictment or suppress essential evidence which would substantially affect the State's ability to prosecute the defendant as charged in the indictment.

Syl. Pt. 1, State v. Hosea, 199 W.Va. 62, 483 S.E.2d 62 (1996) (emphasis added). Thus, after correctly finding that West Virginia Code section 60A-10-4(d) does not apply where an individual possessed only methamphetamine in its completed form, the majority's task was straightforward: it should have found that the circuit court erred as a matter of law in denying Mr. Finley's motion to dismiss this charge from the indictment as he should have never been charged with this crime. Instead, the majority enters into the thicket of the plain error doctrine, wherein it first determines that the circuit court erred in finding a factual basis to accept Mr. Finley's no contest plea to attempt to possess altered pseudoephedrine. After it finds this error, the majority informs us that "[w]e examine the language of West Virginia Code § 60A-10-4(d) to reach our conclusion regarding the factual basis for the plea." Then, the majority decides that the reason there is no "factual basis" for the conditional plea is that as matter of law,

[f]or the purposes of West Virginia Code § 60A-10-4(d) (eff. 2012), completed methamphetamine is not "a substance containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine or their salts, optical isomers or salts of optical isomers in a state or form which is, or has been altered or converted from the state or form in which these chemicals are, or were, commercially distributed."

The majority's logic is baffling at best. The only way the majority can conclude that the circuit court "erred" in finding a factual basis is by first determining that a possession of methamphetamine is not also possession of a precursor in an altered state, which is a pure legal question.

In this regard, Mr. Finley argued that under West Virginia Code section 60A-10-4(d) the State may not charge an individual under that statute where the accused possessed only methamphetamine in its completed form. Unquestionably, a proper interpretation of the statute, which the majority has now found as a matter of law, compels the conclusion that the circuit court should have granted Mr. Finley's motion to dismiss that charge as a matter of law. The issue is not whether there existed a factual basis to accept his plea, but rather whether he should have ever been placed in a position to have to plead to the crime at all. Quite obviously he should not have been.

The posture of this case is not at all unique to this Court, even though the majority suggests otherwise in a footnote.[4] In cases where the circuit court has denied a motion to dismiss based on the court's incorrect construction of a statute, the correct procedure would be to reverse and remand with directions to enter an order dismissing the indictment. See State v. Fuller, 239 W.Va. 203, 800 S.E.2d 241 (2017) (reversing and remanding for dismissal of the indictment against a prostitute upon this Court's determination that West Virginia Code section 61-8-5(b), by its plain language, did not apply to the prostitute, but only to third parties benefitting from the prostitution). Further, on multiple occasions we have reviewed denials of motions to dismiss stemming from conditional plea agreements wherein the petitioners raised legal challenges to the statutes under which they were indicted. One such instance can be found in this Court's opinion in State v. Soustek, 233 W.Va. 422, 758 S.E.2d 775 (2014). There, the petitioner was indicted on, among other things, an identity theft charge under West Virginia Code section 61-3-54 (2010) based on his action in signing his brother's name on a bail agreement. Id. at 424-25, 758 S.E.2d at 777-78. He moved to dismiss that...

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