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Spence v. Bacal

Court of Appeals of Arizona, Second Division

February 6, 2018

Anthony Michael Spence, Petitioner/Appellant,
Hon. Susan Bacal, Justice of the Peace, Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts, Respondent Judge/Appellee, and The State of Arizona, Real Party in Interest/Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court in Pima County No. C20171263 The Honorable Sean E. Brearcliffe, Judge

          Benavidez Law Group, P.C., Tucson By Javier Alatorre Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellant

          Barbara LaWall, Pima County Attorney By Jacob R. Lines, Deputy County Attorney, Tucson Counsel for Real Party in Interest/Appellee

          Presiding Judge Vásquez authored the opinion of the Court, in which Judge Espinosa and Judge Eppich concurred.



         ¶1 Anthony Spence appeals from the superior court's denial of relief in his special action challenging the Pima County Justice Court's order denying his request for a jury trial on three misdemeanor assault charges. Spence argues he is entitled to a jury trial because, if convicted of all three charges, the aggregate sentence could potentially exceed six months. Because we conclude that misdemeanor assault is not a jury-eligible offense, we affirm.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         ¶2 The relevant facts are not in dispute. Spence was charged in justice court with three counts of assault against three victims arising from a single incident. He filed a motion requesting a jury trial, which the court denied. He then filed a complaint for special action in superior court. Spence argued he was entitled to a jury trial because the "potential maximum sentence" he could receive was eighteen months if he were convicted of all three offenses and the court ordered the sentences to be served consecutively. The state responded that Spence was not entitled to a jury trial because it had avowed it would not seek any jail time, and the justice court had stated, on the record, it would impose no more than six months of incarceration. The superior court accepted jurisdiction but denied relief "[f]or those reasons stated in the State's Response to Petition for Special Action." We have jurisdiction of Spence's appeal pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 12-120.21(A)(1) and 12-2101(A)(1). See Ariz. R. P. Spec. Act. 8(a).


         ¶3 Spence argues the superior court erred in denying relief because it was required to consider the "maximum penalty authorized by law, " and was not permitted to rely solely on the justice court's "pretrial commitment" to sentence Spence to no more than six months. When the superior court accepts jurisdiction of a special action but denies relief, we review for an abuse of discretion. Merlina v. Jejna, 208 Ariz. 1, ¶ 6 (App. 2004). Whether a defendant is entitled to a jury trial, however, is a question of law we review de novo. Urs v. Maricopa Cty. Attorney's Office, 201 Ariz. 71, ¶ 2 (App. 2001). An error of law may constitute an abuse of discretion. State v. Wall, 212 Ariz. 1, ¶ 12 (2006). We will affirm the "court's ruling if the result was legally correct for any reason." State v. Perez, 141 Ariz. 459, 464 (1984).

         ¶4 The United States and Arizona constitutions "preserve the right to jury trial only for 'serious, ' as opposed to 'petty, ' crimes."[1] Derendal v. Griffith, 209 Ariz. 416, ¶ 13 (2005); see U.S. Const. amend. VI; Ariz. Const. art. II, § 24; see also Lewis v. United States, 518 U.S. 322, 325 (1996). A crime for which more than a six-month prison term may be imposed is considered "serious, " and the defendant is therefore entitled to a jury trial. Blanton v. City of North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 542-43 (1989). Conversely, "when the legislature classifies an offense as a misdemeanor and punishable by no more than six months incarceration, we will presume that offense to be a petty offense that falls outside the jury requirement" of state and federal constitutional protections.[2] Derendal, 209 Ariz. 416, ¶ 21; see Blanton, 489 U.S. at 543. Under those guidelines, the assault charges against Spence "are presumptively not jury-trial eligible" because the maximum sentence for misdemeanor assault is six months. Fushek v. State, 218 Ariz. 285, ¶ 10 (2008); see A.R.S. §§ 13-707(A)(1), 13-1203(A)(1), (B).

         ¶5 Spence argues, however, that because each count involves a separate victim, the justice court could impose consecutive sentences, thus exposing him to a potential eighteen-month prison term. See State v. Riley, 196 Ariz. 40, ¶ 21 (App. 1999) (prohibition against double punishment "does not apply to sentences imposed for a single act that harms multiple victims"). He therefore reasons "he is being prosecuted for a serious crime for purposes of jury trial entitlement."

         ¶6 In Lewis, the United States Supreme Court considered a similar issue. 518 U.S. at 323. There, the defendant had been charged with two counts of obstructing the mail-a petty offense-but potentially faced a prison sentence of more than six months in the aggregate if the sentences were imposed consecutively. Id. at 324-25. The defendant thus argued that "where a defendant is charged with multiple petty offenses in a single prosecution, the Sixth Amendment requires that the aggregate potential penalty be the basis for determining whether a jury trial is required." Id. at 326.

         ¶7 The Court rejected the defendant's argument and clarified that the focus of the inquiry when determining whether a defendant is entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment is whether the offense is petty or serious, as reflected by legislative judgment "primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized term of imprisonment." Id. at 327. Courts "do not look to the potential prison term faced by a particular defendant who is charged with more than one such petty offense." Id. at 328. Put another way, "[t]he maximum authorized penalty provides an 'objective indicatio[n] of the seriousness with which society regards the offense, ' and it is that indication that is used to determine whether a jury trial is required, not the particularities of an individual case." Id., quoting Frank v. United States,395 U.S. 147, 148 (1969) (first alteration added, second alteration in Lewis). Thus, "[t]he fact that the [defendant] was charged with two counts of a petty offense does not revise the legislative judgment as to the gravity of that particular offense, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the jury trial right would apply." Id. at ...

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