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City of Great Falls v. Wagner

Supreme Court of Montana

June 19, 2018

CITY OF GREAT FALLS, Plaintiff and Appellee,
TAYLOR ROSE WAGNER, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: April 25, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eighth Judicial District, In and For the County of Cascade, Cause No. CDC 16-17 Honorable John A. Kutzman, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Deborah S. Smith, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Ryan Aikin, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Sara Sexe, Great Falls City Attorney, Cassidy R. Blomgren, Deputy Prosecutor, Great Falls, Montana


          James Jeremiah Shea Justice

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion, shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Taylor Rose Wagner appeals the Order by the Eighth Judicial District Court, Cascade County, affirming the City of Great Falls Municipal Court's conviction for endangering the welfare of a child under § 45-5-622(1), MCA. We address whether the State presented sufficient evidence to support a conviction of child endangerment. We affirm.

         ¶3 On June 26, 2015, around 6:30 a.m., Officer Adam Olson of the Great Falls Police Department responded to a call regarding a heavily intoxicated female with a child. At Wagner's apartment, Olson testified he observed Wagner was upset and emotional, her breath smelled of alcohol, her speech was slurred, her shirt had blood on it below the collar, she had what appeared to be fresh scratches on her neck, she did not have a phone, and she was the only adult present. Olson believed Wagner may have been assaulted, but, when asked, she responded nothing had happened. Wagner admitted to drinking the night before, but stated she had arranged for a babysitter to stay the night and was unsure where the babysitter was. James Rusterholz, the on-call Department of Family Services caseworker, arrived and called Wagner's grandmother, Patricia Guardipee, to come take the child while Wagner sobered up. Olson cited Wagner for endangering the welfare of her child in violation of § 45-5-622, MCA, based on the allegation that she violated a duty of care by being heavily intoxicated while supervising her child. Wagner pled not guilty.

         ¶4 On January 13, 2016, the Municipal Court held a bench trial. Wagner testified that she arranged for Paula Valenzuela to babysit her two-year-old son before going out for drinks with friends. Wagner testified that after she returned home and went to her room to sleep, Valenzuela left the apartment. Wagner testified that shortly after she laid down, she heard Olson's knock at her backdoor.

         ¶5 The Municipal Court found Wagner guilty. While acknowledging Wagner's testimony that she had a babysitter, the Municipal Court reasoned, "if she's going to have a babysitter, she's gotta have one that's gonna be there." On appeal to the District Court, the District Court affirmed, determining Wagner failed to provide general supervision while she was intoxicated and alone with her child.

         ¶6 When district courts serve as intermediate appellate courts for cases tried in municipal courts, we review its appellate decision under the applicable standard of review as if originally appealed to this Court. City of Helena v. Grove, 2017 MT 111, ¶ 4, 387 Mont. 378, 394 P.3d 189; see also § 3-6-110, MCA. We review de novo whether sufficient evidence supports a conviction in the light most favorable to the prosecution. State v. Torres, 2013 MT 101, ¶ 16, 369 Mont. 516, 299 P.3d 804; State v. Trujillo, 2008 MT 101, ¶ 8, 342 Mont. 319, 180 P.3d 1153. Sufficient evidence exists to support a conviction if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Bekemans, 2013 MT 11, ¶ 20, 368 Mont. 235, 293 P.3d 843. We affirm.

         ¶7 Wagner does not dispute that she was incapable of caring for her child in her intoxicated state. Wagner's defense is that she had arranged for Valenzuela, a sober adult, to care for her child while she was intoxicated, and she could not foresee that Valenzuela would leave the home while Wagner was still intoxicated. Because Valenzuela left without Wagner's knowledge, therefore, Wagner contends that she did not knowingly endanger her child's welfare.

         ¶8 The evidence, as Wagner presented it to the Municipal Court, supported a viable defense to the charge of child endangerment. However, that is not the issue before us on appeal. The determinative issue here is not whether Wagner presented evidence that supported her acquittal; it is whether sufficient evidence was presented, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, to support a finding that Wagner knowingly endangered her child's welfare by violating a duty of care. If any rational trier of fact could have made such a finding beyond a reasonable doubt, we must affirm the conviction. Although Wagner testified that she had a babysitter who was supposed to be there until she sobered up, there is no dispute that when Olson arrived at 6:30 a.m., Wagner was highly intoxicated and alone with her child. Those facts alone support a finding that Wagner knowingly endangered her child's welfare. That Wagner presented evidence that would have supported a contrary finding is not the point. "We will defer to a [trial] court's resolution of conflicting evidence if the evidence sufficiently supports a factual finding, even where evidence in the record supports a contrary finding." Vintage Constr., Inc. v. Feighner, 2017 MT 109, ¶ 15, 387 Mont. 354, 394 P.3d 179.

         ¶9 Although Wagner characterizes her testimony that Valenzuela was to remain at the home until she sobered up, and left without her knowledge, as "undisputed evidence, " the Municipal Court was not bound to accept Wagner's testimony at face value. The Municipal Court expressed skepticism at Wagner's version of events, noting that although ...

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