State v. Steed, No. 20110441.

CourtUtah Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtChief Justice DURRANT, opinion of the Court
Citation2015 UT 76,357 P.3d 547
Decision Date25 August 2015
Docket NumberNo. 20110441.
PartiesSTATE of Utah., Appellee, v. Joan A. STEED and Frank J. Steed, Appellants.

357 P.3d 547
2015 UT 76

STATE of Utah., Appellee
Joan A. STEED and Frank J. Steed, Appellants.

No. 20110441.

Supreme Court of Utah.

Aug. 25, 2015.

357 P.3d 548

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Brent A. Burnett, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Max D. Wheeler, Rodney R. Parker, Richard A. Van Wagoner, Salt Lake City, for appellants.

Chief Justice DURRANT authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice DURHAM, Justice PARRISH,* and Judge PEARCE joined. Associate Chief Justice LEE filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgement. Having recused himself, Justice HIMONAS does not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge JOHN A. PEARCE sat.

Chief Justice DURRANT, opinion of the Court:


¶ 1 In this appeal, we are asked to decide the constitutionality of Utah's Asset Preservation Statute. But in order to reach this issue, we must first consider whether Ms. Steed's claims are justiciable. Generally, if the requested judicial relief cannot affect the rights of the parties, the case is moot and we will not hear it. Ms. Steed has conceded her claims are technically moot. But she argues that our mootness exception applies. Under this exception, we will hear a technically moot case if it affects the public interest, is likely to recur, and because of the brief time that any one litigant is affected, is likely to evade review. We conclude that Ms. Steed's claims do not warrant the application of this exception, because a freeze order under the Asset Preservation Statute is not inherently short in duration and thus is not likely to evade review. Because Ms. Steed has conceded technical mootness and we conclude that our mootness exception does not apply, we dismiss the case.


¶ 2 The State sought, and received, an order freezing $3,118,997.09 of Frank and Joan Steed's assets under Utah's Asset Preservation Statute.1 On October 14, 2008, the district court entered a temporary restraining order directing Zions Bank to preserve the funds in the Steeds' personal and business banking accounts. The next day the State filed criminal tax charges against the Steeds. The State sought a freeze order to ensure adequate funds would be available for the anticipated restitution award from the criminal tax case. Thereafter, the freeze order was continued as a preliminary injunction. In December 2008, the district court conducted an additional evidentiary hearing regarding the freeze order, reviewing it de novo, and upholding it. The district court also denied the Steeds' motion to substitute a property bond for the funds under the freeze order.

¶ 3 The Steeds were convicted of three counts of failure to file tax returns and one pattern count of criminal fraud. Their ultimate tax liability, as determined by the State Tax Commission auditors, was $247,802. The district court ordered $553,446 of the frozen funds be used to pay their tax obligations, penalties, interest, and fines. The remainder was returned to the Steeds.

¶ 4 The Steeds filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of the Asset Preservation Statute—both facially and as applied. They contended that the statute violated the takings and due process clauses of the Utah Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of United States Constitution. They argued the statute was unconstitutional on its face because it authorized the State to deprive them of their personal property prior to filing criminal charges. And they maintained the statute was also unconstitutional as applied to the facts of this case because the State froze more funds than necessary to

357 P.3d 549

secure future restitution. The Steeds also argued that the State had failed to meet its burden under the statute.

¶ 5 The district court denied the motion and entered final judgment on August 3, 2011. The Steeds appealed this decision. We first heard this case on appeal from the district court's decision. After oral argument, we remanded the case to the district court for preliminary findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding the Steeds' claim that they suffered “collateral legal consequences” from the freeze order sufficient to overcome a mootness challenge. Specifically, they argued that they would suffer ongoing harm through reduced credibility in future business litigation and harm to their business reputation generally. But due to Mr. Steed's deteriorating health, they conceded the issue of technical mootness. The Steeds' concession rendered the requested finding of fact on remand unnecessary, so we recalled the case.


¶ 6 Because Ms. Steed has conceded that her claim is technically moot, we now consider whether her challenge to the freeze order meets the exception to our mootness doctrine. “An argument is moot [i]f the requested judicial relief cannot affect the rights of the litigants.”2 In other words, an appeal is moot if the controversy is eliminated such that it renders the relief “requested impossible or of no legal effect.”3 Once a court has determined that there is no jurisdiction due to the absence of a justiciable controversy, “its immediate duty is to dismiss the action.”4

¶ 7 Before we will address an issue that is technically moot, it must (1) affect the public interest, (2) be likely to recur, and (3) because of the brief time that any one litigant is affected, be likely to evade review.5 The third element is dispositive in this case.

¶ 8 We note that in the past we have been somewhat loose in our articulation of the third element of our mootness exception. We have described this element in two different ways, as requiring the issue to be (1) “capable of evading review” and (2) “likely to evade review.”6 Upon reflection we have concluded that the “capable of evading review” articulation of the third element is overly broad. We therefore clarify that the proper articulation of our standard is the one used herein—“likely to evade review.” We disavow any language in our prior cases stating otherwise.

¶ 9 Issues that are likely to evade judicial review are those that are inherently short in duration such that a court will likely be unable to hear the issue when it still presents a live controversy.7 In Local 382, we noted “such rapidly resolving issues” include “election matters, closed political meetings, bar admissions, and abortion cases.”8 Unlike these rapidly resolving issues, a freeze order under the statute in question remains in place until the resolution of the criminal matter and is not lifted until the court acts, either to order funds paid in restitution to the State, to return funds to the defendant, or both. While in some instances the criminal matter could resolve quickly and thus render a freeze order incapable of review, there will no doubt also be

357 P.3d 550

cases where judicial review is possible while the controversy is live, as we explain below.

¶ 10 Ms. Steed argues that freeze orders under the Asset Preservation Statute are likely to evade review because defendants will not prioritize challenging a civil freeze order over their criminal defense. According to Ms. Steed, challenging a freeze order would require a defendant to spend limited resources—further limited by the freeze order itself—to challenge the civil freeze order while diverting resources from the defense of criminal tax charges. As a result, she argues, defendants will not pursue a civil matter when criminal charges are pending.

¶ 11 In determining whether an issue is inherently short in duration, we have traditionally focused on whether the issue itself was of a rapidly resolving nature (and therefore likely to evade review), and not on whether the issue is likely to evade review by virtue of collateral choices future parties are likely to make.9 For instance, in Ellis v. Swensen, we looked to the inherently short pendancy of the issue presented. In that case, we held that a challenge to the wording of election ballots met this element of our mootness exception “because sample ballots do not have to be produced until seven days before the election.”10

¶ 12 In In re Adoption of L.O., we also focused on the short duration of the issue itself. In that case, the parties disputed which entity had jurisdiction over the adoption of an Indian child under the Indian Child Welfare Act—the State or the Navajo Nation.11 The issue was mooted, however, when the Navajo Nation consented to the child's adoption.12 The Navajo Nation argued that the “dismissal of the appeal on mootness grounds would effectively punish the Navajo Nation for acting in the child's best interests and consenting to the adoption before the appeal was fully resolved.”13 But we held the case was moot because the “decision [to consent to the adoption] does not establish that any jurisdictional disputes over

357 P.3d 551

25 U.S.C. § 1911 will affect the interests of the parties for only a brief time.”14

¶ 13 While it may be difficult or even impossible for some defendants, such as the Steeds, to both defend against criminal prosecution and simultaneously challenge a freeze order, that does not make the freeze...

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12 cases
  • Widdison v. State, No. 20161043
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • April 29, 2021
    ...before us, the matter is moot and, absent an exception to our mootness doctrine,Page 4 we will not hear the matter. See State v. Steed, 2015 UT 76, ¶ 1, 357 P.3d 547. In her petition, Widdison requested an evidentiary hearing, an order declaring that the Board's actions violated her constit......
  • State v. Legg, No. 20140716–CA
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • August 4, 2016 to dismiss the action.” Id. ¶¶ 18–19 (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); accord State v. Steed , 2015 UT 76, ¶ 6, 357 P.3d 547. Simply put, a court does not have jurisdiction to consider a moot case, unless some recognized exception is established by......
  • Neese v. Utah Bd. of Pardons & Parole, No. 20150487
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • December 14, 2017 faithfully apply our precedent. We adhere to Labrum absent any argument or indication that it should be overruled. See State v. Steed , 2015 UT 76, ¶ 11 n.9, 357 P.3d 547 ("We should tread cautiously in overruling precedent and this is especially true where the parties have failed to bri......
  • Widdison v. State, 20161043
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • April 29, 2021
    ...parties before us, the matter is moot and, absent an exception to our mootness doctrine, we will not hear the matter. See State v. Steed , 2015 UT 76, ¶ 1, 357 P.3d 547. In her petition, Widdison requested an evidentiary hearing, an order declaring that the Board's actions violated her cons......
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