State v. Sixteen Thousand Dollars U.S. Currency

Decision Date04 April 1996
Docket NumberNo. 950284-CA,950284-CA
Citation914 P.2d 1176
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff, v. SIXTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS UNITED STATES CURRENCY, Defendant. Isidro GARCIA, Appellant, v. STATE of Utah, Appellee.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Michael H. Wray, Paul G. Amann, Amann & Wray, L.C., Salt Lake City, for Appellant.

William L. Benge, Grand County Attorney, Moab, Jan Graham, Utah Attorney General, Scott W. Reed, Assistant Attorney General, Salt Lake City, for Appellee.

Before BENCH, BILLINGS and WILKINS, JJ.

OPINION

WILKINS, Judge:

Isidro Garcia appeals the default judgment of forfeiture entered against $16,000 in favor of the State. We dismiss the appeal.

BACKGROUND

In February 1994, Utah Highway Patrol officers stopped a 1988 Hyundai for speeding on Interstate 70 in Grand County. The officers seized $16,000 in U.S. currency after finding the currency, a Browning .22 rifle, and marijuana residue in a hidden compartment in the car's bumper.

In September 1994, the Grand County Attorney filed a complaint seeking forfeiture of the $16,000 pursuant to the Utah Controlled Substance Act. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 58-37-1 to -21 (1994 & Supp.1995). Notice was served by mail on known interested parties, as well as by publication.

No one ever filed an answer to the complaint. However, Isidro Garcia, the driver of the Hyundai and alleged owner of the cash, apparently corresponded with the Grand County Attorney through an attorney from Van Nuys, California. Counsel for Garcia claims that Garcia also filed a pro se response to the complaint on December 2, 1994. However, the State claims no answer was ever filed, and no filed response is found in the record on appeal.

After two continuances, the trial court held a hearing on the matter on January 25, 1995. No one appeared on behalf of Garcia. On the day of the hearing, the trial judge received a facsimile transmission from the Van Nuys attorney, asking for a continuance. However, the request was insufficient, and the trial court declined to continue the case.

Following the hearing, the trial court entered a default judgment in favor of the State on January 31, 1995. On March 1, Garcia filed a motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Garcia also filed a notice of appeal from the default judgment on March 2. The trial court denied the motion for relief on April 5, and Garcia did not appeal from that ruling.

ANALYSIS

Garcia claims on appeal that the trial court erred as a matter of law in finding the $16,000 subject to forfeiture, erred in making inadequate findings of fact, and exceeded the scope of permitted discretion in refusing to grant a continuance. Because we dismiss the appeal, we do not consider these issues.

Instead, we hold that Garcia could only appeal from the denial of his Rule 60(b) motion, and not from the default judgment directly. We can find no Utah case in which an appellate court considered a direct appeal from a default judgment entered against a party who had failed to file any responsive pleading and had not appeared before the trial court.

The only cases that appear to involve a direct appeal from a default judgment are cases in which default judgment was entered as a sanction for discovery violations pursuant to Rule 37 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. In each case, the sanctioned party had filed responsive pleadings, had appeared before the trial court, and had an opportunity to argue against the sanction before the trial court. See, e.g., Schoney v. Memorial Estates, Inc., 790 P.2d 584 (Utah App.), cert. denied, 804 P.2d 1232 (Utah 1990).

Certainly, a party may have a reasonable explanation for its default. If so, the party should proceed under Rule 60(b) to seek relief from the trial court. In the furtherance of justice, the trial court has discretion to relieve a party from a default judgment where the party's default resulted from mistake, surprise, excusable neglect, misconduct by the other party, improper service, or the like. See Utah R.Civ.P. 60(b). The court could also grant relief in cases where the defaulting party discovers new evidence, has already satisfied the judgment, or has another reason justifying relief. See id.

A defaulting party can then appeal a trial court's denial of a Rule 60(b) motion. See Amica Mut. Ins. Co. v. Schettler, 768 P.2d 950, 970 (Utah App.1989) ("[A]n order denying relief under Rule 60(b) is a final appealable order."). If the defaulting party does not appeal the court's ruling on the motion, then we cannot, on appeal, find a mistake by the trial court. In such cases, the trial court did not err in entering the default judgment, and the appellate court would lack authority to review whether the trial court acted unreasonably in refusing to grant relief from the judgment.

On the other hand, a trial court may err as a matter of law in entering a default judgment. See, e.g., Katz v. Pierce, 732 P.2d 92, 95 (Utah 1986) (per curiam) (indicating that amount of damages awarded in default judgment cannot exceed amount prayed for in complaint or be unsupported by evidence in record); Stevens v. Collard, 837 P.2d 593, 595 (Utah App.1992) (concluding that before rendering judgment by default, trial court must first conclude that "the uncontroverted allegations of an applicant's petition are, on their face, legally sufficient to establish a valid claim against the defaulting party"), cert. denied, 862 P.2d 1356 (Utah 1993); P & B Land, Inc. v. Klungervik, 751 P.2d 274, 276-77 (Utah App.1988) (holding that trial court must make entry of default prior to entry of default judgment, and court may not make entry of default when there is no default in law or in fact). Even in these cases, the party asserting the error must first present the issue to the trial court through the appropriate post-judgment motion prior to seeking appellate review.

Again, the proper course for an aggrieved party to follow would be to make a Rule 60(b) motion for relief from judgment, see Utah R.Civ.P. 60(b)(7) (allowing a motion to be made on the basis of "any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment"), or a motion for a new trial, or to amend or alter the judgment, pursuant to Rule 59. See Utah R.Civ.P. 59(a)(5), (a)(6), (a)(7) (indicating that excessive damages, insufficient evidence, or error in law are proper grounds for such a motion); see also Moon Lake Elec. Ass'n v. Ultrasystems W. Constructors, 767 P.2d 125, 127-28 (Utah App.1988) (holding that Rule 59 motion for "new" trial was...

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    ...for the first time on appeal. Defendants' position is not supported by our jurisprudence. ¶ 15 In State v. Sixteen Thousand Dollars United States Currency, 914 P.2d 1176 (Utah Ct.App.1996), we rejected the idea that a defendant could appeal directly from a default judgment without first rai......
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    ...bright line rule disallowing direct appeals from a default judgment entered for failure to appear. See State v. Sixteen Thousand Dollars U.S. Currency, 914 P.2d 1176 (Utah Ct.App.1996). The proper and exclusive course, according to the court of appeals, is for litigants to first file a 60(b......
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    ...of appeals precedent did not allow an exception for cases of default judgment. Id. ¶¶ 12–19 (citing State v. Sixteen Thousand Dollars United States Currency, 914 P.2d 1176 (Utah Ct.App.1996) ). One judge disagreed, arguing that our precedent required such an exception. Id. ¶¶ 23–30 (McHugh,......
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