State v. Johnson, 20191024

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Writing for the CourtChief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court
Citation508 P.3d 100
Parties STATE of Utah, Appellee, v. Leterrance Tewayne JOHNSON, Appellant.
Docket Number20191024
Decision Date01 March 2022

508 P.3d 100

STATE of Utah, Appellee,
Leterrance Tewayne JOHNSON, Appellant.

No. 20191024

Supreme Court of Utah.

Heard October 13, 2021
Filed March 1, 2022

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Marian Decker, Ass't Solic. Gen., Lindsey Chervenak, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Nathalie S. Skibine, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Pearce and Justice Petersen joined.

Chief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court:


¶1 Leterrance Tewayne Johnson was at a Murray, Utah hotel when he was approached by the hotel manager, Jason Sandoval. When Mr. Sandoval asked Mr. Johnson to leave, a heated exchange ensued. The State subsequently accused Mr. Johnson of attempting to steal Mr. Sandoval's cell phone and, while fleeing after the failed attempt, aiming a gun at and threatening to kill Mr. Sandoval if he called the police. Mr. Sandoval called the police anyway, and the recording of that call was played for the jury at trial.

¶2 The jury convicted Mr. Johnson of aggravated robbery. He appeals his conviction, arguing the 911 call was inadmissible hearsay and that its admission at trial was prejudicial error. He also asks us to reexamine our practice of placing the burden on a criminal appellant to show that a preserved error was prejudicial. Instead, he suggests the State, as the party benefitting from the error, should be required to show the error was not prejudicial. Because we hold that the district court properly admitted the 911 call under the present sense impression exception to the rule against hearsay, we save the prejudice debate for a future case.

¶3 Mr. Johnson also appeals the district court's denial of his directed verdict motion. He argues, as he did at the district court, that the evidence was insufficient for the jury to find he used a gun to threaten Mr. Sandoval "in the course of committing robbery," as the aggravated robbery statute requires. We hold that the evidence was sufficient and affirm the district court's ruling.


¶4 Mr. Johnson drove with his girlfriend into the parking lot of a hotel in Murray, Utah, because, according to Mr. Johnson, the engine of the car they were driving had begun to overheat.1 After waiting for the engine to cool, Mr. Johnson and his girlfriend began to drive away before realizing it was still hot. Mr. Johnson stopped the car again and purportedly went to get water to pour into the radiator. His girlfriend stayed in the car, which was parked in an area of the property that was under renovation and closed to vehicles.

¶5 At the same time, the hotel manager, Mr. Sandoval, and his assistant were inspecting the premises. They noticed Mr. Johnson in one of the rooms under renovation and saw his girlfriend in the car parked nearby. Mr. Sandoval spoke to the girlfriend and, when Mr. Johnson came back, told them they needed to leave. According to Mr. Sandoval's assistant, there recently had been a number of drug deals and drug users on the property, and she suspected Mr. Johnson was involved in such activity. When Mr. Sandoval

508 P.3d 103

asked him why he was there, Mr. Johnson claimed he was a guest of the hotel, but he was unable to produce a room key. He also claimed that his room was in one of the buildings under renovation, where no guests were currently staying. Upon further questioning, Mr. Johnson became agitated, asking Mr. Sandoval, "Who the f*** do you think you are?" and saying, "I belong here. I have friends here."

¶6 As the confrontation escalated, Mr. Sandoval's assistant began calling 911, which further angered Mr. Johnson. Mr. Sandoval testified that Mr. Johnson ran toward his girlfriend—who was still in the car—saying, "Give me my piece. Give me my piece." At that point, Mr. Sandoval snapped a picture of Mr. Johnson with his cell phone camera. Mr. Sandoval testified that, in response, Mr. Johnson ran toward him, exclaiming, "Give me your f***ing phone.... Who the f*** do you think you are taking pictures of me?" He then testified that Mr. Johnson grabbed his wrist and shirt, pulling Mr. Sandoval toward him and attempting to take the cell phone. But Mr. Sandoval managed to place the phone in his back pocket, where the assistant grabbed it. She then headed toward a hotel office, dialing 911 again.2

¶ 7 Mr. Sandoval testified that Mr. Johnson then climbed halfway into the passenger's side of the car, asking his girlfriend once again to give him his "f***ing piece." The assistant testified that when she was on her way to the office and about thirty feet from Mr. Johnson's car, she also heard Mr. Johnson ask his girlfriend to give him "something" and claimed to see him reach toward the passenger window as his girlfriend was reaching down. Mr. Johnson then got in the car, and his girlfriend climbed behind the wheel. According to Mr. Sandoval, as the pair drove away Mr. Johnson pointed a gun at Mr. Sandoval and said, "If you call the cops, we'll come back and kill you."

¶8 Mr. Sandoval was the only witness at trial to testify specifically that Mr. Johnson held a gun and that he pointed it at him as he drove away. The assistant, who started heading toward the hotel office ahead of Mr. Sandoval, testified that she did not see a gun. Mr. Johnson and his girlfriend testified that he never had a gun.

¶9 After Mr. Johnson and his girlfriend drove away, Mr. Sandoval followed his assistant to the hotel office, where they called 911 again—this time connecting with a dispatcher. The call was placed just a "couple minutes" after Mr. Johnson had allegedly threatened to return and kill them. The State introduced a recording of the call, which was played for the jury three times—during Mr. Sandoval's direct examination, during closing argument, and during jury deliberations. In the recording, Mr. Sandoval delivers his account of what occurred: "I came out of the [inaudible], questioned some individuals in a room.... Once I took a picture, he got all aggravated and said if cops come I'm gonna come kill you. I took a picture of his car, license plate, and the individual." This statement did not make clear to the dispatcher what had transpired, so she asked again what happened. Mr. Sandoval responded that Mr. Johnson was selling drugs on the property.3 Then, when asked when everything happened, he responded that it "happened just now."

¶10 Mr. Sandoval did not speak of the gun until two minutes into the call when the dispatcher asked, "Were weapons involved or mentioned?" Mr. Sandoval replied, "Yes, he was just trying to pull out a gun on me. ... Then he tried to take my phone away. He like confronted me." The dispatcher then asked what type of gun Mr. Johnson had, to which Mr. Sandoval replied, "It was a handgun, like a 9 mm." Mr. Johnson was arrested about one week later and charged with aggravated robbery, based on the allegation that he attempted to take Mr. Sandoval's phone and threatened him with a gun as he fled the scene.

508 P.3d 104

¶11 Mr. Johnson's alleged possession and threatened use of the gun was the only aggravating factor in his robbery conviction.4

¶12 Mr. Johnson objected to the admission of the 911 call at trial, arguing it was hearsay under the Utah Rules of Evidence.5 But the district court held that the call fell within the "present sense impression" exception to the rule against hearsay, relying upon statements Mr. Sandoval made during the call suggesting the events had occurred just before the call was placed.6

¶13 Mr. Johnson later moved for a directed verdict on the ground that he did not use a gun "in the course of committing" the offense, so his actions did not satisfy the elements of aggravated robbery under Utah Code section 76-6-302. The district court denied the motion.

¶14 The district court instructed the jury on both aggravated robbery and, alternatively, simple robbery.7 It also included instructions on the lesser-included offense of threat of violence.8 While deliberating, the jury requested, and was granted, the opportunity to re-hear the 911 call. But when the jury asked for a transcript of Mr. Sandoval's testimony, the court instructed them instead to rely on their own recollections of the evidence.9

¶ 15 The jury convicted Mr. Johnson of aggravated robbery, and the district court sentenced him to a prison term of five years to life. Mr. Johnson timely appealed.

¶ 16 On appeal, Mr. Johnson argues that admitting the 911 call under the present sense impression exception was prejudicial error. He also urges us to reexamine our caselaw placing the burden on a criminal appellant to show prejudice from a preserved error. Finally, he appeals the district court's denial of his directed verdict motion, asking us to review the sufficiency of the evidence that he was "in the course of committing a robbery" at the time he was alleged to have pointed the gun at Mr. Sandoval.10

Standards of Review

¶17 We apply three standards of review to a district court's admission of evidence. First, we review the "threshold statement of the legal principle governing admission or exclusion" for correctness.11 Second, we review "findings of facts pertinent to a determination" for clear error.12


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT