Almost seven years after drugs allegedly were found in Abisai Martinez-Castellanos’ vehicle during a traffic stop, his convictions in the case were overturned by the Utah Court of Appeals because of the “cumulative effect of several errors.”
In its January 2017 decision, the appeals court cited concerns about the performance of Martinez-Castellanos’ defense attorney during jury selection — which resulted in retired Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Paul Mangelson, who had been a drug interdiction supervisor, being seated on the panel.
The court also was concerned about defense attorney Milton Harmon’s handling of an ultimately unsuccessful motion to get evidence from the traffic stop thrown out. Its 3-0 decision sent the case back to 4th District Court for a new trial with a new defense attorney.
But a trial has been on hold while the Utah Attorney General’s Office appealed the Court of Appeals ruling. And on Wednesday, an assistant solicitor general asked the Utah Supreme Court to reinstate the convictions instead.
Christopher Ballard argued that the lawyers representing Martinez-Castellanos in his appeal had failed to show that any of the jurors had an actual bias against their client.
He said Juror One, who has been identified in court records as Mangelson, was forthcoming about his background as a law enforcement officer and he had assured the court he would be impartial. In addition, Ballard said, the defense attorney did not object to Mangelson’s inclusion on the eight-member jury.
But Aaron Dodd, Martinez-Castellanos’ appellate attorney, argued that “it’s clear Sgt. Mangelson was a biased juror” and should not have been on the panel.
Dodd said the former trooper was not candid when being questioned in the courtroom in front of Martinez-Castellanos during jury selection. In addition, Martinez-Castellanos was not present when Mangelson was questioned individually by the prosecutor and defense attorney in the judge’s chamber and first revealed he was a retired trooper — information that Martinez-Castellanos never learned.
And Dodd pointed out that trial defense attorney Harmon, a former district attorney for Juab County, has said in an affidavit that he did not object to Mangelson being on the jury because the retired trooper had conducted a lot of traffic stops and would know the Martinez-Castellanos’ stop was illegal. However, under the jury instructions, the jurors were not allowed to consider whether the stop was unlawful, Dodd said.
The justices took the case under advisement.
Martinez-Castellanos, now 37, was pulled over on Interstate 15 in Juab County in June 2010 by a UHP trooper who noticed the car’s California license plate was missing one of the two required registration stickers.
The trooper ran a background check and learned that Martinez-Castellanos had theft and drug charges on his record, according to court documents. He later testified that the criminal history, along with Martinez-Castellanos’ rapid speech and movements, made him suspicious.
Based on field sobriety tests, the trooper concluded Martinez-Castellanos was under the influence of a controlled substance. Martinez-Castellanos said he had knives in the car and based on his criminal record, the trooper believed he could not legally possess them.
The trooper arrested Martinez-Castellanos and allegedly found two pocket knives, drug paraphernalia, hydrocodone pills, methamphetamine and seven prescription pills.
Martinez-Castellanos, who denied the items were his, was charged with drug crimes. Harmon filed a motion to throw out evidence from the traffic stop but never followed up with a supporting memorandum, court records say, and the case went to trial in 4th District Court in November 2012.
Mangelson said on his juror questionnaire that he was retired but did not say what he did before his retirement until he was questioned individually, according to court records.
Other jurors included one who said if someone had drugs in the car, he was probably guilty, and another who expressed reservations about her ability to function as a juror.
Martinez-Castellanos was convicted in a one-day trial of two felony counts of possession or use of a controlled substance and two related misdemeanors and sentenced to 30 days in jail and 24 months of probation. He appealed his convictions.
In overturning the convictions, the Court of Appeals judges said the cumulation of errors — but not any one error — undermined their confidence that Martinez-Castellanos received the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
Judge Stephen Roth wrote that “a breakdown in the adversarial process happened here,” and Judge Kate Toomey concurred in his opinion.
Judge Gregory Orme, who agreed with the ultimate result and much of the lead opinion, wrote a separate opinion.
“It is impossible to understand the magnitude of the problem with his selection as a juror in this case without knowing his identity,” Orme wrote of Mangelson.
Although Mangelson was “a very effective warrior on the Utah front of the war on drugs,” he was not necessarily an expert on Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure requirements, Orme wrote. He pointed out that many of trooper’s stops were determined to be illegal by the courts.
“In a case like this one, Sergeant Mangelson’s impartiality could, to put it mildly, be reasonably questioned,” Orme wrote, “and it was inexcusable for defense counsel not to have moved that Sergeant Mangelson be excused for cause, a motion that would have been granted without the trial judge batting an eye.”