City of Helena v. Heppner

City of Helena v. Heppner, 2015 MT 15 (Jan. 20, 2015) (Shea, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court properly held that Heppner’s speedy-trial rights were not violated.

Short Answer: No. 375 days from arrest to entry of plea triggers a constitutional speedy-trial analysis. The Court remands with instructions to take evidence and make findings and conclusions.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Heppner was arrested for DUI on April 29, 2012. He refused to comply with a search warrant for a blood sample. A complaint was filed the next day in justice court charging Heppner with DUI, a misdemeanor, and concealing or tampering with evidence, a felony.

On May 15, 2012, the state charged Heppner with DUI and tampering with evidence. Heppner pled not guilty and trial was set for Aug. 27, 2012. He moved to vacate the trial date set a change-of-plea hearing, which was set for Aug. 15.

The COP hearing was changed once on Heppner’s motion and once by stipulation of the parties. On Aug. 30, 2012, the First Judicial District held in a different case that refusing to comply with a search warrant for a blood sample is not concealing or tampering with evidence. The state moved to dismiss Heppner’s felony tampering charge and to transfer the case to Helena Municipal Court. (The state moved for “remand,” prompting the Supreme Court to note that the district court had original, not appellate, jurisdiction, and that the case originated in justice court, not municipal court.) The district court transferred the case to municipal court, which arraigned Heppner, who again pled not guilty to DUI.

In November 2012, Heppner moved to dismiss on the grounds his DUI had not been brought to trial within six months of arraignment. The municipal court denied the motion, holding that Heppner gave up his right to a jury trial in district court when he moved to vacate the trial date for a COP hearing. The court further held that Heppner availed himself of the new opportunity to request a trial by jury upon transfer to the municipal court, which was just cause for delay.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Heppner moved for reconsideration of his motion to dismiss, this time arguing more fully his statutory and constitutional speedy-trial rights. The municipal court denied the motion. Heppner changed his plea to guilty and reserved his right to appeal the denial of his speedy-trial claim. Heppner appealed to the district court, which denied his appeal, and now appeals to the Supreme Court, which reverses.

Reasoning: A criminal defendant has a fundamental right to a speedy trial under the 6th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and Article II, section 24 of the Montana Constitution. A defendant also has a separate statutory right to be tried on a misdemeanor charge within 6 months of arraignment. The statute’s protections are not available when the trial was postponed on the defendant’s motion, or when the state shows good cause for delay. In such cases, only the constitutional protection applies via the analysis set forth in Ariegwe.

A defendant does not waive his right to trial until he pleads guilty and the court accepts his plea. Moving to vacate a trial date and set a COP hearing does not waive a defendant’s right to trial. However, the statutory speedy trial protections are not available to a defendant whose trial has been postponed on his own motion. Because Heppner moved to vacate the trial date, the statute’s protections did not extend to him.

Although a constitutional analysis is generally not applicable to misdemeanors because the misdemeanor speedy-trial statute is generally more strict, it is available when the statute does not apply. The minimum delay necessary to trigger speedy-trial analysis is 200 days between accusation and disposition. Here, 375 days passed between Heppner’s arrest and the date his plea was entered. This is sufficient to trigger a constitutional analysis. Because the municipal court did not conduct such an analysis, the Supreme Court remands for findings and conclusions regarding the four Ariegwe factors.