August 27, 2020

E.H. v. Slayton, --- P.3d ---, No. CR-19-0118-PR, 2020 WL 4459283 (Ariz., Aug. 4, 2020)

Defendants pled guilty to charges of child endangerment or child abuse in connection with the death of a six-year old victim. Pursuant to the plea agreement, defendants agreed to pay restitution capped at $500,000 to the deceased victim’s sibling, who is also a victim under state law. The surviving child-victim petitioned the Arizona Court of Appeals for special action review of two issues: (1) the trial court’s order upholding the restitution cap; and (2) the trial court’s requirement that the child-victim’s attorney must sit in the gallery, instead of the “well” of the courtroom, unless invited to step into the well to address the court. After the court of appeals declined to accept jurisdiction, the child-victim petitioned the Arizona Supreme Court for review. The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and reversed. First, the court rejected the State’s argument that the case was not ripe for review unless and until the trial court denies a restitution claim that exceeds the cap. The court determined that the State “effectively waived” the child-victim’s right to full restitution by agreeing to a restitution cap, and this improper waiver of the victim’s right is an injury that is ripe for review. Second, the court concluded that capping restitution in a plea agreement without the victim’s consent violates the victim’s right to full restitution. In reaching its holding, the court concluded that due process does not require the imposition of a restitution cap to ensure a defendant’s guilty plea is voluntarily and intelligently made. The court overruled three former decisions—State v. Lukens, State v. Phillips and State v. Crowder—that stood for the principle that a voluntary and intelligent plea requires defendant to know a specific or maximum amount of restitution at the time of the plea. The court determined that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require the imposition of a restitution cap, and a restitution cap without the victim’s consent is ultimately illusory and unenforceable. Third, the court concluded that a victim’s attorney “should presumptively be permitted to sit before the bar”—inside the well—when the victim’s rights are at issue in a proceeding. The court stated that this presumption may be overcome by certain concerns, such as the trial court’s need to manage seating to allow for physical distancing during a pandemic. The court cautioned, “[a]t all times, however, a trial court’s discretion to address seating arrangements must honor a victim’s constitutional right to be present and heard … and to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.” For these and other reasons, the court vacated the restitution cap. The court remanded with directions to the trial court to allow defendants to move to withdraw from their plea agreements upon a showing that the restitution cap was a relevant and material part of their decisions to plead guilty.