State v. Lane, Nos. 20070878, 20061126, 2009 WL 1635363 (Utah June 12, 2009)
June 12, 2009
Defendant killed two brothers, Dan and John Hays, when the car he was driving collided head on into their vehicle. The state charged defendant with two counts of misdemeanor negligent homicide, among others. Peggy and Patricia Hays, the brothers’ wives, and victims under Utah’s Constitution and the Rights of Crime Victims Act, informed the prosecutor they wished to exercise their rights to be present, to address the court at the plea and sentencing hearing, and to request restitution. Despite the victims’ assertion of their rights, a plea hearing was held without notification to the victims. The court accepted defendant’s guilty plea and sentenced him to a plea in abeyance for a period of twelve months, awarding no restitution to the victims. When the victims learned of the plea agreement, they filed a motion in the trial court to set aside the plea. The court denied the motion but held the plea in abeyance while the victims appealed its decision. During this time, defendant moved to dismiss the plea in abeyance with prejudice based on Utah Code prohibiting a misdemeanor plea to be held in abeyance longer than 18 months. The court granted the motion and dismissed the case with prejudice. The victims filed a second appeal challenging the dismissal. The appellate court consolidated the appeals and certified the case to the Utah Supreme Court.
The Utah Supreme Court, answering the threshold question of whether a victim can independently appeal from a dismissal of defendant’ plea in abeyance, held that the victims lacked standing and dismissed the appeal. The Court reasoned that since neither the defendant or the state appealed the dismissal, the trial court’s order was final and the case was moot. The Court explained that a case is deemed moot when the requested relief cannot affect the rights of the litigants. The Court went on to note that even if the case was not moot, the Utah Rights of Crime Victims Act and the Victims’ Rights Amendment to the Utah Constitution expressly prohibit a victim from appealing any criminal judgment, which includes the dismissal of defendant’s plea in abeyance. In dismissing the appeal, the Court stated, “We hope and expect that the trial courts will continue to be vigilant in their efforts to recognize crime victims’ constitutional rights and ensure those rights are protected and upheld in fashion during the trial process.”