State v. Giffin

Decision Date27 July 2021
Docket NumberDA 19-0428
CourtMontana Supreme Court
Parties STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Tyler Edward GIFFIN, Defendant and Appellee.

For Appellant: Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, Micheal S. Wellenstein, Tammy K Plubell, Assistant Attorneys General, Helena, Montana Travis Ahner, Flathead County Attorney, Ashley Suzanne Frechette, Deputy County Attorney, Kalispell, Montana

For Appellee: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

Justice Laurie McKinnon delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 The State appeals from an Eleventh Judicial District Court, Flathead County, order granting Tyler Giffin's Motion to Dismiss for lack of probable cause. We reverse.

¶2 We review the following issue on appeal:

Did the State establish probable cause in its Information when it charged Giffin with criminal endangerment?
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶3 On June 24, 2019, the State moved for leave to file an information charging Giffin with felony criminal endangerment, in violation of § 45-5-207(1), MCA. In the affidavit in support of its motion, the State set forth the following facts:

On June 22, 2019, [an] officer with the Kalispell Police Department responded to a report of a possible gunshot at the Outlaw Inn on Highway 93, within Flathead County. Officer Smith spoke with Michael Slaughter who stated he heard what sounded like a gunshot and observed a hole in the window of the room below his. Slaughter also reported he heard similar sounds the night before.
Officers observed the blinds of the downstairs unit had a gunshot-like pattern of holes and the glass was broken out of the window. Officers Smith, Bain, and Clackler made contact with David Giffin and TYLER EDWARD GIFFIN at the room. TYLER EDWARD GIFFIN stated that he was the person who fired the gun. David stated that TYLER EDWARD GIFFIN is a drug user and was hallucinating when he fired a shotgun at the window. David also stated the night before TYLER EDWARD GIFFIN fired a revolver into a wall. Another person in the unit also stated TYLER EDWARD GIFFIN was hallucinating.
Officer Smith noted the rounds exited the window towards the parking area and into an unoccupied unit of the building. The parking area outside the window is commonly used by the occupants of the Outlaw Inn.

¶4 The District Court granted the State's Motion for Leave to File an Information. On June 24, 2019, the State filed its Information charging Giffin with felony criminal endangerment under § 45-5-207(1), MCA.

¶5 On July 9, 2019, Giffin filed a motion to dismiss the criminal endangerment charge, arguing that there were no facts establishing probable cause that he had committed the offense of criminal endangerment. Specifically, Giffin argued: "Nowhere in the affidavit does it allege that there were people in the parking lot at the time of the offense. No specific victim is alleged in the charging documents." He argued that "[n]one of the facts set forth in the charging documents conclude that another was actually subjected to a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury by the alleged acts of the Defendant." On July 10, 2019, before the State could file a response, the District Court issued an order granting the Motion to Dismiss and did not provide any reasons for its decision.

¶6 The State appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶7 Initially, we must resolve what standard of review to apply. The State provides that a district court's decision to grant a motion to dismiss in a criminal case is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo, citing State v. White Bear , 2005 MT 7, ¶ 5, 325 Mont. 337, 106 P.3d 516. Giffin argues that because this case involves a question of whether the State established probable cause in the charging documents, this Court should review the District Court's decision for an abuse of discretion, citing State v. Holt , 2006 MT 151, ¶ 20, 332 Mont. 426, 139 P.3d 819.

¶8 We have consistently stated the standard of review with respect to motions to dismiss as follows: a trial court's grant or denial of a motion to dismiss in a criminal case is a question of law that we review de novo. State v. Violette , 2009 MT 19, ¶ 10, 349 Mont. 81, 201 P.3d 804 (motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds); State v. Mallak , 2005 MT 49, ¶ 13, 326 Mont. 165, 109 P.3d 209 (motion to dismiss on double jeopardy grounds); State v. Adgerson , 2003 MT 284, ¶ 24, 318 Mont. 22, 78 P.3d 850 (motion to dismiss based on the assertion that Montana's stalking statute was overbroad); State v. Knowles , 2010 MT 186, ¶ 23, 357 Mont. 272, 239 P.3d 129 (motion to dismiss based on vindictive prosecution). However, we have also generally deferred to a district court's discretion when the district court has reviewed an information and affidavit and found the charging documents established probable cause that a particular person committed a particular offense.

State v. Dunfee , 2005 MT 147, ¶ 31, 327 Mont. 335, 114 P.3d 217 ("The determination of whether a motion to file an information is supported by probable cause is left to the sound discretion of the trial court."). The official comments to Montana's leave to file information statute, § 46-11-201, MCA, suggest such review ("Obtaining leave to file an information is not a mere perfunctory matter, but rests in the sound discretion of the district judge.").

¶9 Though the precise question of what standard of review should be applied was not directly before the Court in Holt , Justice Nelson's concurrence discussed the issue at length. He identified the inconsistencies between an abuse of discretion standard when reviewing probable cause, and a de novo standard when reviewing a motion to dismiss. He noted that the standard used seemed to depend largely on whether the alleged insufficiency in the affidavit was grounded in an underlying question of law or was based on an alleged failure to set forth sufficient factual data to support the charge. Holt , ¶ 56 (Nelson, J., concurring). Even this distinction, however, has not clarified what standard of review the Court should apply. We have applied de novo review in cases involving questions of both factual and legal sufficiency,1 as well as in cases involving only a question of legal sufficiency.2 We have applied abuse of discretion review in cases involving only questions of factual sufficiency,3 in cases involving questions of both factual and legal sufficiency,4 and in cases involving only questions of legal sufficiency.5

¶10 It is often difficult to categorize the question for establishing probable cause as being purely one of factual sufficiency or of legal sufficiency. Every case contains both a factual component and a legal component. Each case involves a set of unique facts and, as a matter of law, the "recitation of some minimum quantum of those facts in the affidavit supporting the motion for leave to file information" is necessary to establish the probability that the accused committed the crime or crimes to be charged. Holt , ¶ 66 (Nelson, J., concurring) (citing State v. Arrington , 260 Mont. 1, 6-7, 858 P.2d 343, 346 (1993) ; State v. Elliott , 2002 MT 26, ¶ 26, 308 Mont. 227, 43 P.3d 279 ). "It is simply impossible to determine whether probable cause has been established in either a factual or legal vacuum." Holt , ¶ 67 (Nelson, J., concurring). It is thus clear that categorizing these cases simply as questions of either factual sufficiency or legal sufficiency does little to inform us on the appropriate standard of review.

¶11 The determination is a mixed question of law and fact. "We have, with minor exceptions not important here, applied the de novo standard in criminal cases where we consider mixed questions of law and fact ...." Holt , ¶ 67 (Nelson, J., concurring); see State v. Grixti , 2005 MT 296, ¶ 15, 329 Mont. 330, 124 P.3d 177 (ineffective assistance of counsel); State v. Favi , 2005 MT 288, ¶ 10, 329 Mont. 273, 124 P.3d 164 (voluntariness of plea); Stop Over Spending Mont. v. State , 2006 MT 178, ¶ 10, 333 Mont. 42, 139 P.3d 788 (issues surrounding ballot statements approved by the Attorney General). "Mixed questions of law and fact are presented to this Court when the historical facts of a case are admitted or established, the applicable law is undisputed, and the issue is whether the facts satisfy the statutory standard." Stop Over Spending Mont. , ¶ 10 (citing State v. Warclub , 2005 MT 149, ¶ 21, 327 Mont. 352, 114 P.3d 254 (citing Lambert v. Blodgett , 393 F.3d 943, 965 (9th Cir. 2004) (citing Pullman-Standard v. Swint , 456 U.S. 273, 289 n. 19, 102 S. Ct. 1781, 1790, 72 L.Ed.2d 66 (1982) ))). When parties raise the issue of the sufficiency of the evidence to establish probable cause, the issue is whether the alleged facts satisfy the statutory elements of the crime charged; that is, whether there is probable cause that the accused had committed the offense of criminal endangerment. Thus, parties are presenting a mixed question of fact and law. Accordingly, where the question is whether the affidavit in support of a motion for leave to file an information directly in the district court is legally or factually sufficient, it is a mixed question of law and fact that we will review de novo. A de novo standard of review addresses both the factual and legal components in a motion to dismiss an information for lack of probable cause.

DISCUSSION

¶12 Did the State establish probable cause in its Information when it charged Giffin with criminal endangerment?

¶13 On appeal, the State argues the District Court erred in granting Giffin's motion to dismiss. It maintains the District Court's grant of Giffin's motion to dismiss was based on Giffin's argument that the State failed to identify a specific victim in the charging documents—an identification of which, the State asserts, is not a requirement when charging a defendant with criminal endangerment. Giffin argues this is a misrepresentation of the dismissal and...

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2 cases
  • State v. Brown
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 13 d2 Setembro d2 2022
    ...elements of the crime charged; that is, whether there is probable cause that the accused had committed the offense ...." State v. Griffin , 2021 MT 190, ¶ 11, 405 Mont. 78, 491 P.3d 1288. An application for leave to file an information by affidavit against a criminal defendant must be grant......
  • State v. Brown
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 13 d2 Setembro d2 2022

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