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City of Billings ex rel. Huertas v. Kolar

Supreme Court of Montana

October 31, 2017

CITY OF BILLINGS, ex rel., JAMES JOSEPH HUERTAS, Relator and Petitioner,
v.
BILLINGS MUNICIPAL COURT, The Honorable Sheila R. Kolar, and THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, the Honorable Michael G. Moses, Respondents.

          Submitted on Briefs: August 23, 2017

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING: Billings Municipal Court, In and For the City of Billings, Cause No. TK-2016-4035 Honorable Sheila R. Kolar, Presiding Judge

          For Petitioner: Lisa J. Bazant, Attorney at Law, Billings, Montana

          For Respondents: Brent Brooks, Billings City Attorney, Benjamin J. Halverson, Deputy Billings City Attorney, Billings, Montana

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Laurie McKinnon Justice.

         ¶1 Petitioner James Joseph Huertas (Huertas) requests this Court exercise supervisory control over the Billings Municipal Court and conclude the Municipal Court placed Huertas in double jeopardy when it granted the City's motion for a mistrial and subsequently scheduled a new trial.

         ¶2 Montana Constitution, Article VII, Section 2(2), grants this Court general supervisory control over all other courts. This Court exercises supervisory control on a case-by-case basis, as it is an extreme remedy. M. R. App. P. 14(3). Supervisory control is appropriate "when urgency or emergency factors exist making the normal appeal process inadequate, when the case involves purely legal questions, and when one or more of" three enumerated circumstances exist. M. R. App. P. 14(3). We accepted supervisory control over this matter on March 22, 2017, concluding the double jeopardy issue was appropriate for supervisory control pursuant to Keating v. Sherlock, 278 Mont. 218, 924 P.2d 1297 (1996).

         ¶3 We reverse the Municipal Court's order denying Huertas's motion to dismiss and address the following issue:

Did the Municipal Court abuse its discretion in declaring a mistrial and err in concluding that double jeopardy did not bar Huertas's retrial?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶4 The City of Billings (City) charged Huertas with Partner or Family Member Assault (PFMA) following an incident between Huertas and alleged victim L.H. The Municipal Court set Huertas's trial for January 20, 2017, at which time a jury was impaneled and sworn. During its case-in-chief, the City called L.H. to the stand. The City asked L.H. if she wanted to be there and she replied that she did not. When asked, "Are you only here because of a court-ordered subpoena?" she responded, "I am, " and indicated that she was unhappy testifying. The City did not inquire further into the subpoena and proceeded with its direct examination.

         ¶5 After the City completed its questioning of L.H., defense counsel Lisa Bazant (Bazant) began cross-examining L.H. During cross-examination, the following exchange occurred:

[Bazant]: Did members of the Billings Police Department try to get you to testify a particular way? . . . Were you visited by the Billings Police Officer yesterday?
[L.H.]: Yes.
[Bazant]: And did that officer attempt to influence your testimony today?
[L.H.]: Yes.
[Bazant]: Influence you in a way that it would be more toward the prosecution's-
[City]: I'd like to object. May we approach?

         The Judge allowed counsel to approach, and after an inaudible conversation excused the jury but asked the parties to remain. The jury left the courtroom and L.H., still under oath, explained the interaction at issue. L.H. testified that the night before trial, at approximately 11:00 p.m., Billings Police Officer LaMantia (Officer LaMantia) served her a subpoena requiring her to appear at the trial as one of the City's witnesses. L.H. said her roommate let Officer LaMantia into their home and Officer LaMantia sat next to L.H. on the couch.

         ¶6 Before L.H. explained more, the Judge asked the City if it knew about the interaction. The City said the information was a "surprise" that had a "significant impact" on its case and relayed two main concerns. First, if what L.H. alleged was true, Officer LaMantia engaged in witness tampering and he needed the opportunity to respond to L.H.'s allegations. Second, if the allegations were true, the City needed to declare a mistrial because the City was unfairly prejudiced by the information. If the trial moved forward after the jury heard L.H.'s testimony, the City needed to investigate Officer LaMantia's actions and contemplated that it may have to dismiss the case. On the other hand, the City observed that if the case moved forward and Huertas was acquitted, it would then be "too late" to address the allegations. The City concluded it was unable to proceed with the new, very significant, information because it needed to interview Officer LaMantia and L.H.

         ¶7 Bazant agreed that the information had a significant impact on the case and expressed concern that L.H., the City's own witness, may have been inappropriately influenced by an officer. The Judge responded that she was "not going to put the City Prosecutor" in an unfavorable light because "[h]e didn't know." During this discussion both Bazant and the Judge alluded to the fact that there was a preexisting relationship between Officer LaMantia and Huertas. While we cannot ascertain the exact nature of their relationship from our review of the record, it is clear that Huertas, Officer LaMantia, and L.H. were personally familiar with one another at the time the subpoena was served. The Judge expressed serious concern about the events, stating that if Officer LaMantia behaved as alleged "the City is put at disadvantage unbeknownst to them." The City reported it had asked a sergeant to serve the subpoena and did not know Officer LaMantia was going to serve it.

         ¶8 The Judge then asked L.H. to explain more about what happened the night before. L.H. testified that Officer LaMantia and another officer served her the subpoena in the presence of her roommate. L.H. said that, after giving her the document, Officer LaMantia wanted to give her "friendly advice as a friend." L.H. testified that Officer LaMantia told L.H. she needed to be at trial so Huertas would be "punished for everything that he has done." The Judge responded, "[B]ut he didn't tell you to testify. He just said you needed to be there. It's a Subpoena. You are under Subpoena so he did do that." L.H. responded, stating that Officer LaMantia told her to "ignore the uniform" and that he, "as a friend, " was telling her she needed to be at trial to "tell them exactly what happened." Based on these allegations, the following exchange occurred between L.H., Bazant, and the Judge:

[Judge]: [I]t is a Subpoena, and you are subpoenaed, and you do need to be
here because you were subpoenaed, and as a friend or whatever he says. Is that all he said to you?
[L.H.]: Honestly, I was a mess. I ...

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