Decision: State v. Valladarez

May 8th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its opinion in State v. Valladarez (No 99,724). In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Marla Luckert, the Court held that a District Magistrate Judge can perform a felony arraignment, including informing the defendant of the implications of a guilty plea, provided that Magistrates in that District have been assigned this power by the Chief Judge of the District. In this case, there being no evidence either way about this assignment the case was remanded to the District Court to ascertain if the assignment of this authority had been properly made.

In 2007 Aaron Valladarez was charged in Ford County with sale of methamphetamine and possession of methamphetamine. At a preliminary hearing before a District Magistrate Judge the State offered a deal: plead guilty or nolo contendere to the charges and the sale of meth one would be replaced with a second possession charge (possession being a lesser felony). Valladarez accepted the deal and the Magistrate converted the hearing into an arraignment. Valladarez pled no contest and subsequently at a District Court sentencing hearing was given two concurrent 28 month sentences.

Valladarez appealed citing two conflicting aspects of Kansas Law governing Magistrates and arraignments, as well as longstanding precedents from the 1970s and earlier. The old cases and a general statute block Magistrates from presiding over most felony arraignments. However, another statute gives them the right to do so if the Chief Judge of the Judicial District has authorized them to. Generally, when two statutes conflict the more specific one is controlling, but the Court is to read them in such a way as to harmonize them. In this case, what happened was that in the 1990s the Legislature amended the law to allow Magistrates to handle arraignments for efficiency reasons. Therefore the Court rejected the notion that the Magistrate was not permitted to arraign Valladarez.

As a second argument, Valladarez also argued that even if the Magistrates could preside over an arraignment, they could not have been granted the authority to preside over the process of accepting a guilty (or no contest) plea since this requires a judgement as to whether the plea was acceptable. Valladarez argued that this was the realm of the District Judge. The Court also rejected this argument, noting that while the law did not specify one way or the other, the process of arraignment contained the process of accepting a plea and to allow a delay between the defendant entering a plea and the Court acting upon whether that plea was a valid one would actually harm the defendant’s Due Process rights.

Procedurally this case is somewhat odd. Generally appellate claims may only be raised if the matter they cover was raised in District Court, however if the claim concerns the jurisdiction of the Court that heard the case the claim can be raised at any point. (This is based on the idea that jurisdiction is an absolute – either it exists or it does not and there is nothing a party to a case can do to create or destroy it). For this reason the Kansas Supreme Court heard this case. However, the Statute which the Court relied on to reject Valladarez’ claims required some form of official decision within the Judicial District that would enable Magistrates to handle arraignments. There was no evidence in the case record that this had happened, so the case was remanded back to the District Court to determine whether this had in fact been done. The District Court was instructed that if it had been done then Valladarez’ felony convictions will stand, but that if it had not been done they will not. The opinion also made a point to put Chief Judges on notice to ensure that if this procedure was in use in their District to ensure that their administrative orders properly covered this process.

The Court also heard a claim from Valladarez that since the sentencing Judge had omitted to ask him a question about whether he had any reason to believe that he could not be sentenced, his sentence was invalid. The Court found that this check is required by law, and that the Judge had erred in not asking it. However the Court also found that the error was harmless: Valladarez would have received the same sentence anyway.

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