State v. Smith, 20130583.

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Citation344 P.3d 573,2014 UT 33
Decision Date26 August 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20130583.,20130583.
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Shawn Michael SMITH, Defendant and Appellant.

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Laura B. Dupaix, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Herschel Bullen, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Chief Justice DURRANT authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice NEHRING, Justice DURHAM, Justice PARRISH, and Justice LEE joined.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals.

Chief Justice DURRANT, opinion of the Court:

Introduction

¶ 1 The question presented in this case is whether a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to accept a defendant's guilty plea where the defendant was not bound over following either a preliminary hearing or an express waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing.1 The court of appeals held that “a district court cannot exercise its jurisdiction to accept a guilty plea until a defendant has been bound over following either a preliminary hearing or the defendant's waiver of a preliminary hearing.”2

¶ 2 We reverse the court of appeals' decision and conclude that while it is error for a district court to accept a guilty plea without holding a preliminary hearing or obtaining an express waiver from the defendant of the right to a preliminary hearing, such an error does not deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction. Utah's current statutory scheme grants district courts broad subject matter jurisdiction over criminal cases. And nothing in the Utah Constitution or Utah Code makes holding a preliminary hearing, obtaining an express waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing, or issuing a bindover order a prerequisite to a district court's exercise of subject matter jurisdiction.

Background

¶ 3 On July 20, 2010, Adult Probation and Parole agents found methamphetamine in Shawn Michael Smith's bedroom. Mr. Smith and his wife admitted they smoked methamphetamine earlier that same day and both tested positive for methamphetamine.

¶ 4 Two days later, the State filed an information charging Mr. Smith with one count of possession or use of a controlled substance. Mrs. Smith was similarly charged. In addition to facing charges, the Smiths lost custody of their two children. In an apparent attempt to regain custody of the children, the Smiths quickly reached a joint plea agreement with the State. Under that agreement, Mr. Smith agreed to plead guilty to a second-degree felony and Mrs. Smith agreed to plead guilty to a class A misdemeanor. The two hoped that this arrangement would keep Mrs. Smith out of jail so she could attempt to regain custody of the children.

¶ 5 The Smiths appeared in court on August 4, 2010, for their joint preliminary hearing before Judge John Walton. What occurred, however, was not a preliminary hearing. Rather, discussions between Judge Walton and counsel immediately turned to the issue of Mr. Smith's guilty plea. Judge Walton never expressly asked Mr. Smith whether he waived his right to a preliminary hearing. Additionally, Mr. Smith's written plea statement did not refer to his right to a preliminary hearing. Eventually, he pled guilty to second-degree felony possession or use of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone.

¶ 6 Less than a month after entering his plea, Mr. Smith requested new counsel because he was concerned that his counsel could not adequately provide effective representation to both him and his wife. The court allowed Mr. Smith's counsel to withdraw and appointed new counsel to represent him. Mr. Smith then filed a motion seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. He alleged that his previous attorney's joint representation of him and his wife improperly influenced him to enter the plea, which resulted in his plea being unknowing and involuntary. He also alleged that at the time of the hearing he was not taking necessary medications, so he was confused and unable to remember the hearing.

¶ 7 On March 1, 2011, Mr. Smith appeared for a hearing on his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The judge presiding at this hearing, Judge G. Michael Westfall, was not the same judge who had accepted Mr. Smith's guilty plea nearly seven months earlier. At the hearing, Mr. Smith changed course by withdrawing his motion to withdraw. He then asked to be immediately sentenced. Before sentencing Mr. Smith, Judge Westfall advised him of his right to a preliminary hearing in the following colloquy:

THE COURT: All right. Now, Mr. Smith, before I announce my sentence, is there anything else you want to bring to my attention?
MR. SMITH: No.
THE COURT: Okay. Mr. Shawn Michael Smith, pursuant to your—okay. Well, let me just check one more thing here.
Your plea, when you pled guilty, it was entered in—to Judge—before Judge Walton. I don't know if Judge Walton has the practice of making sure that in a felony case, you have waived your right to a preliminary hearing, but I want to make sure we address that at this point.
There is a body of law that would suggest that if you plead guilty, you've waived any prior errors in the case but I want to make sure that you understand that you have the right to a preliminary hearing. I don't know if you waived your right to a preliminary hearing or not before you entered your plea. But if I proceed to sentencing today, that means you will never have a preliminary hearing. Do you understand that?
MR. SMITH: I don't know what happened with my—that's fine, I—I guess.
THE COURT: All right. You understand that and you're in agreement with that?
MR. SMITH: Yeah.
THE COURT: All right. And the defendant appears to understand the ramifications of that and so I'm going to proceed.

Judge Westfall then sentenced Mr. Smith to serve one to fifteen years in prison.

¶ 8 Mr. Smith appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, where he argued “that because he was never formally bound over, the district court never obtained subject matter jurisdiction over the case.”3 The court of appeals agreed and held “that a failure to bind over a defendant following either a preliminary hearing or the waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing is a jurisdictional defect that renders his guilty plea void.”4 The State petitioned for writ of certiorari, which we granted. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code Section 78A–3–102(5).

Standard of Review

¶ 9 This case is before us on writ of certiorari. “On certiorari, we review the decision of the court of appeals for correctness, without deference to its conclusions of law.”5 The question presented here is whether the district court had subject matter jurisdiction to enter the guilty pleas. “Challenges to subject matter jurisdiction present questions of law, which we ... review for correctness.”6

Analysis

¶ 10 The outcome of this case turns on whether a district court's failure to bind a defendant over following a preliminary hearing, or an express waiver by the defendant of the right to a preliminary hearing, is jurisdictional.7 If the error is not jurisdictional, Mr. Smith cannot now attack the validity of his plea or pre-plea proceedings because such a challenge would be untimely under Utah law.8 On the other hand, if the district court's error is jurisdictional, Mr. Smith can challenge his plea as void because jurisdictional challenges may be raised at any time.9 Mr. Smith argues that the district court's failure to hold a preliminary hearing or obtain an express waiver from him of his right to a preliminary hearing is a jurisdictional defect and renders his guilty plea void. In contrast, the State argues that the error is not jurisdictional and further contends that the error was forfeited by Mr. Smith when he pled guilty and failed to timely challenge his pleas.

¶ 11 The court of appeals agreed with Mr. Smith. To begin, it noted that [c]laims relating to the validity of the [preliminary hearing] waiver itself are waivable” and further recognized that “even a constitutional defective waiver of a defendant's right to a preliminary hearing could invest the district court with jurisdiction if it resulted in a bindover.”10 But it distinguished Mr. Smith's case because “no wavier—valid or otherwise—was effected prior to the time the district court accepted and entered Smith's guilty plea, and thus Smith was never bound over at all.”11 Because the district court did not hold a preliminary hearing, and did not obtain an express waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing from Mr. Smith, the court of appeals reasoned that a district court never acquired the jurisdiction necessary to accept his guilty plea.12

¶ 12 We reverse the court of appeals' decision and conclude that a district court's exercise of jurisdiction does not hinge on whether it held a preliminary hearing, obtained an express waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing, or issued a bindover order. Two important points support this conclusion. First, during the last two decades the Legislature has merged the functions of district courts and the former circuit courts, thereby rendering obsolete the jurisdictional framework we discussed in State v. Humphrey.13 And second, the jurisdictional statutes relevant here grant district courts broad subject matter jurisdiction over criminal matters, and nothing in either the Utah Constitution or Utah Code makes the exercise of that jurisdiction dependent on a defendant's right to preliminary hearing or the issuance of a bindover order. Because we reverse on this basis, we do not reach the State's alternative argument concerning a claimed express waiver by Mr. Smith.

I. Intervening Developments Between Our Decision in State v. Humphrey and This Case Render Humphrey Inapplicable Here

¶ 13 Mr. Smith's primary argument is that our decision in State v. Humphrey makes the issuance of a bindover order, after holding a preliminary hearing, a jurisdictional prerequisite to a district court's exercise of subject matter jurisdiction. We disagree. Humphrey was decided under a prior jurisdictional framework, and intervening...

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