State v. Soto

Citation2022 UT 9
Decision Date17 February 2022
Docket Number20180810
CourtSupreme Court of Utah
PartiesState of Utah, Petitioner, v. Anthony Soto, Respondent.

Heard Date May 6, 2019

Supplemental Briefing Concluded June 18, 2019

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Mark S. Kouris No. 151902137

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Lindsey Wheeler, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for petitioner

Andrea J. Garland, Lisa J. Remal, Richard Sorenson, Salt Lake City for respondent

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

Justice Petersen filed a dissenting opinion, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee joined.




¶1 Two court personnel-a uniformed highway patrolman assigned to protect the Supreme Court and a court IT technician- shared a nonpublic courthouse elevator with a jury during trial and told them, in so many words, to find the defendant, Anthony Soto, guilty, and, according to at least one juror, to "hang him." All the while, the trial court bailiff stood quietly in the elevator, arguably condoning these statements through his silence.

¶2 We granted certiorari to determine if the court of appeals correctly held that such conduct triggers a rebuttable presumption of prejudice against Soto. Based on the Utah Constitution and long-standing precedent, we conclude that the court of appeals was correct.

¶3 Article I, section 12 of the Utah Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to "trial by an impartial jury." The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the same. So fundamental is this right to our system of criminal justice that courts across the country hail it as "sacrosanct," Harper v. Barge Air Conditioning, Inc., 722 S.E.2d 84, 88 (Ga.Ct.App. 2011), and one of "[t]he most fundamental principles of American criminal law," State v. Coy, 550 S.W.2d 940, 942 (Mo.Ct.App. 1977).

¶4 For almost a hundred years, this court has recognized that essential to the guarantee of an "impartial jury" is keeping the jury insulated from outside contacts that may influence their decision. When "the personal liberty" of a person is at stake, "the law requires of the juror such conduct during that time that his verdict may be above suspicion as to its having been influenced by any conduct on his part during the trial." State v. Anderson, 237 P. 941, 944 (Utah 1925). So, when an unauthorized contact likely to influence the jury occurs, the defendant is entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the contact has prejudiced him or her. See State v. Pike, 712 P.2d 277, 280 (Utah 1985).

¶5 The regretful contact in this case violated Soto's right to an impartial jury and triggered a rebuttable presumption that Soto was prejudiced by that constitutional assault. Our precedents dictate that to rebut this presumption, the State must show the contact was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We remand the case to the district court to determine whether the State has met this burden.


¶6 Anthony Soto was arrested and charged with sexual assault. During a lunch break on the second day of his trial, the bailiff escorted the jurors to a nonpublic, court-employee elevator. According to the jurors, [1] a uniformed highway patrolman was present in the elevator and said something to the jury along the lines of: "Let me tell you how this ends" or, potentially, "[j]ust say he's guilty." The bailiff said nothing. The elevator descended two floors, and a court IT technician joined the jury inside. The technician said something to the effect of, "you guys look like a jury," to which a juror replied with words akin to, "[d]o we look that obvious?" The technician responded with something in the vein of "[c]an you say guilty?" The bailiff again said nothing in response to these ill-chosen comments. He did, however, report the incident to the trial judge.

¶7 Upon learning of the patrolman's and technician's comments, the trial court promptly intervened. The court interviewed each juror separately with the parties present and asked each juror questions such as: "Did you hear any of those comments," "what did you hear," and "will that comment have any effect at all with how you see this case?" The replies from each juror about what they heard varied and included the following: "Just say he's guilty," "let me tell you how this ends," "[y]ou can already tell he's guilty," and, most disturbing of all, "convict him or hang him." All jurors agreed on the overall sequence of events, and all but one said that at least either the patrolman or the technician had commented on Soto's guilt and the trial's outcome. The remaining juror could not remember what either man had said. No juror said they believed the comments would impact their impartiality or ability to render a verdict.

¶8 Defense counsel moved for a mistrial because the jurors "almost all sa[id] they heard the word guilty," and "the gist of that comment was that they should find the defendant guilty or he must look guilty." Defense counsel further argued that the jurors' subjective avowals that their impartiality remained intact were not reliable because "we're all influenced by things and don't even realize it sometimes."

¶9 The trial court denied defense counsel's motion for a mistrial and gave a curative instruction to the jury. The judge informed the jurors that the patrolman was tasked with guarding the Utah Supreme Court Justices and that he had no connection to Soto's trial and "really no connection to the court system at all." The judge elaborated: "He's not a bailiff, he's nothing like that. He drives his police car, parks downstairs where we park and he goes up to guard [the Supreme Court]. So he would have absolutely no knowledge of any part of this trial." Additionally, the judge explained that the technician's job was to fix broken equipment and that "we know what IT guys know about trials and that's pretty much nothing." The judge concluded by telling the jury, "I don't want you to think that those folks have any inside information or any talk or gossip or anything about what's going on. They know absolutely nothing about this case and every comment they made was completely off the cuff, they were trying to be funny. Quite frankly, they weren't."

¶10 The trial proceeded, and the jury found Soto guilty. Soto appealed.

¶11 On appeal, Soto argued that he was denied his constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury because of the improper juror contact.[2] The court of appeals agreed. It held that the contacts between the jury, the patrolman, and the technician triggered a rebuttable presumption of prejudice, which the State had not rebutted. State v. Soto, 2018 UT App 147, ¶ 23, 427 P.3d 1286. The court of appeals reversed Soto's conviction and remanded for a new trial. Id. ¶ 24. The State filed a writ of certiorari with this court, which we granted.

¶12 We exercise jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).


¶13 On certiorari, "we review the decision of the court of appeals and not that of the [trial] court." State v. Hansen, 2002 UT 125, ¶ 25, 63 P.3d 650 (citation omitted). And "we review the decision of the court of appeals for correctness." Id. (citation omitted). As for the content of the court of appeals' decision," [interpretation of the Utah Constitution" is a "question[] of law that we review for correctness." Jensen ex rel. Jensen v. Cunningham, 2011 UT 17, ¶ 37, 250 P.3d 465.


¶14 The Utah Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to "trial by an impartial jury." Utah Const. art. I § 12. Under our case law, that right prohibits improper contacts between juries and third parties during trial.[3] See State v. Anderson, 237 P. 941, 942-44 (Utah 1925); State v. Pike, 712 P.2d 277, 279-80 (Utah 1985). The United States Constitution provides the same protection. See U.S. Const. amend. VI.

¶15 A long line of Utah cases dating back to statehood recognizes that improper contacts between juries and third parties may trigger a rebuttable presumption of prejudice, depending on who made the improper contact, what was said, and the circumstances of the contact. When the third party is a person of importance in the proceedings or authority within the criminal justice system, we are more likely to presume prejudice. We are also more likely to presume prejudice when the content of the communication involves a subject of the trial. Finally, we consider all relevant circumstances that may favor or disfavor a presumption of prejudice.

¶16 Applying this balancing test and our precedents to this case, we hold that the contacts here triggered a rebuttable presumption of prejudice. Soto's jury had contact with a uniformed highway patrolman assigned to protect the Supreme Court, who was literally clothed in the authority of the state, and a court IT technician. Those individuals made statements to the jurors aimed at the heart of the most essential element of a criminal trial-the defendant's innocence or guilt. And the bailiff, understood by the jury as their protector from undue outside influences, heard it all but remained silent, potentially validating the comments in the minds of the jury.

¶17 Once the rebuttable presumption of prejudice is triggered, it is up to the State to rebut it. Although we have said that the State bears a heavy burden to rebut the presumption, we have not always cleanly articulated the standard. Today, we hold that the State can carry its burden only by proving harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard formulation for a constitutional deprivation. We then discuss how the State might go about doing so. We accordingly remand to the...

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