State v. Kebble

State v. Kebble, 2015 MT 195 (July 14, 2015) (Cotter, J.; Rice, J., dissenting) (4-2, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the justice court abused its discretion in denying Kebble’s challenge for cause of a prospective juror; (2) whether the justice court abused its discretion in granting the state’s motion in limine prohibiting Kebble for presenting evidence of the circumstances surrounding suspension of his outfitters license; and (3) whether the justice court erred when it sentenced Kebble under the statute in effect when he committed the crime rather than the one in effect when he was charged and convicted.

Short Answer: (1) Yes. When a potential juror works for the person or entity on whose behalf the prosecution was initiated, a challenge for cause must be granted; (2) no; and (3) no.


Facts: In 2004, John Kebble was a licensed outfitter in Red Lodge. In March 2004, he pled guilty to drug possession. In April 2004, the Carbon County District Court imposed a one-year deferred sentence with terms and conditions. In May 2004, Kebble failed a random drug test. Kebble, his probation officer, and the hearing officer entered into an Intervention Hearing Agreement (IHA), under which Kebble was to spend three days in jail in July 2004 in lieu of a formal violation.

On June 29, 2004, the Montana Board of Outfitters suspended Kebble’s license “until such time that [his] civil rights have been restored pursuant to law.” The same day, the probation officer notified the AG’s office of the probation violation and the agreed-upon sanction. Despite the IHA, the AG petitioned for revocation of Kebble’s deferred sentence. The district court granted the petition and sentenced Kebble to five years, all suspended. Kebble petitioned for postconviction relief, asking the Carbon County district court to reinstate his deferred sentence.

After being observed conducting multiple outfitting trips, Kebble was arrested in June 2006 for probation violations. In September 2007, the state filed suit against Kebble in Carbon County justice court alleging 38 misdemeanor violations of outfitting without a license.

In January 2009, the district court set aside the July 2004 revocation and reinstated its April 2004 judgment and order imposing a deferred sentence. Kebble moved to withdraw his guilty plea and dismiss the drug charges with prejudice, and the district court granted his motion.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Kebble challenged for cause a juror who works as a criminal investigator for the state agency that investigated Kebble’s computer for evidence he was outfitting. Kebble sought to introduce evidence of the district court’s decision in justice court. The state moved to exclude, and the justice court granted the state’s motion. The jury found Kebble guilty of all 38 counts, and he was sentenced to 36 days in jail and fines of $12,730. Kebble appealed to the district court, which affirmed. He appeals to the Supreme Court, which reverses.

Reasoning: (1) When the justice court denied Kebble’s challenge for cause, Kebble used one of his three peremptory challenges to remove the criminal investigator for the Department of Justice. Kebble’s counsel did not reference the statute governing challenges for cause, MCA § 46-16-115, in justice court or district court, but does so on appeal. The Court nonetheless addresses the merits based upon counsel’s general reference to the juror’s employment and because it concludes the district court’s interpretation of the statute is incorrect. The lower court erred by failing to analyze Kebble’s challenge under § 46-16-115(2)(b), MCA, which addresses whether removal for cause is justified because the prospective juror is employed by the person upon whose complaint the prosecution was instituted. Matteson worked for DCI, the same division in which a key witness for state worked. “[W]here – as here – the . . . prospective juror is in the employment of the person or agency on whose complaint the prosecution was instituted, the challenge for cause must be granted regardless of whether the potential juror claims he can be impartial.” ¶ 36.

(2) Because the evidence Kebble wanted to introduce is not admissible, and his earlier license suspension is remote in time and irrelevant to whether he had a license when he was cited, the justice court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence of Kebble’s district court proceeding.

(3) While a defendant is entitled to the ameliorating effect of a statutory amendment that occurs after the crime is committed but before sentencing, here the 2007 Legislature did not ameliorate the penalty for outfitting without a license, but merely shifted it to another title.

Justice Rice’s Dissent (joined by Justice Baker): The majority’s interpretation of § 46-16-155, MCA, is impossible, as the statute is not written logically. The statute lists circumstances that are appropriate for challenges, but nonetheless require the trial court’s discretionary determination of actual bias. Justice Rice would affirm.