Can the State appeal an order granting a prejudgment motion for a new criminal trial?

Criminal Appeal 1

State v. Harris (Nev. Supreme Ct. – July 30, 2015)

The issue is whether the Nevada Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review the State’s appeal from an order granting a prejudgment motion for a new trial in a criminal matter.

On October 2, 2013, a jury returned verdicts finding Harris guilty of first-degree murder, child abuse and neglect with the use of a deadly weapon, and two counts of child abuse and neglect. Prior to sentencing, Harris filed a timely motion for a new trial, which the district court granted. Pursuant to NRS 177.015(1)(b), the State appealed from the order granting the motion for a new trial. In State v. Lewis, 124 Nev. 132, 178 P.3d 146 (2008), the Nevada Supreme Court previously held that NRS 177.015(1)(b) only permits appeals from district court orders resolving post-conviction motions for a new trial. Therefore, the Nevada Supreme Court in this case ordered the State to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The State argued that the Lewis holding was based on a rationale that has no application to its right to appeal in a criminal case. The State, therefore, requested the Court to revisit Lewis as it related to appeals from orders granting prejudgment motions for a new trial.

The plain language of NRS 17.015

NRS 177.015(1)(b) provides, in relevant part, that any aggrieved party, whether it is the State or the defendant, may appeal “from an order of the district court. . . granting or refusing a new trial.” Thus, the Court determined that the plain language of NRS 177.015(1)(b) clearly authorized an appeal from an order granting a motion for a new trial and did not limit the right to an appeal based on when the motion was filed or when the order resolving it was entered.

State v. Lewis and NRS 177.015(1)(b)

The Court explained that the Nevada Supreme Court has had a prior opportunity to consider the State’s right to appeal pursuant to NRS 177.015(1)(b) from a prejudgment order granting relief. The Lewis court held that the State did not have a statutory right to appeal from an order granting a presentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea. In reaching this decision, the Lewis court observed that Nevada Rule of Appellate Procedure NRAP 3A, which governs civil appeals, used language similar to the provision in NRS 177.015(1)(b) regarding an appeal from an order granting or refusing a new trial and that the language in NRAP 3A had been interpreted to only allow for an appeal from an order denying a post-judgment motion for a new trial. Noting these similarities and that the Nevada Supreme Court had treated a motion to withdraw a guilty plea as tantamount to a motion for a new trial, the Lewis court stated that it saw no reason to construe the same language in NRS 177.015(1)(b) in an inconsistent manner.

The Court noted that the Lewis court further determined that compelling policy justifications supported a holding disfavoring appeals from intermediate orders and for requiring a final judgment “before this court is vested with jurisdiction.” Those policy justifications include ensuring that there is a complete record for appellate review and promoting judicial economy by avoiding piecemeal review of intermediate orders. Based on these policy justifications, the Lewis court held that, pursuant to NRS 177.015(1)(b), it has authority to review determinations of the district court resolving post-conviction motions for a new trial, as well as post conviction motions that are the functional equivalent of a motion for a new trial and determined that an order granting a prejudgment motion to withdraw a guilty plea is not appealable because it is an intermediate order of the district court.

Lastly, the Lewis court addressed the State’s argument that by refusing to hear an appeal from a district court order granting a presentence motion to withdraw, the State would be deprived of its right to appellate review of an erroneous decision by the district court because the State cannot appeal from an acquittal. The Lewis court noted that the district court has vast discretion in the grant or denial of a presentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea and found that the State generally suffers no substantial prejudice when a motion to withdraw a guilty plea is granted because the State may proceed to trial on the original charges or enter into a new plea bargain with the defendant. Therefore, the Lewis court did not find the State’s argument to be compelling.

Thus, the Court in this case explained that the rationale behind Lewis is that despite its plain language, NRS 177.015(1)(b) does not include intermediate orders, which it described as any order entered before a judgment of conviction, because that would be inconsistent with the final judgment rule and the policy reasons supporting that rule. However, the Court determined that this rationale was less persuasive when applied to the unique policy considerations regarding presentencing orders granting a new trial in criminal cases and when considering the different effects of granting a motion to withdraw a guilty plea versus granting a motion for a new trial.

The interpretation of NRS 177.015(1)(b) and NRAP 3A(b)(2)

The Court explained that in Lewis, the State argued, as it did in this case, that precluding the appeal would leave the State without a remedy when a motion is granted before judgment. In rejecting this argument, the Lewis court used a policy rationale that is specific to a motion to withdraw a guilty plea and inapplicable to a motion for a new trial. The Lewis court’s primary focus was on the vast discretion that the district court has in deciding a motion to withdraw a guilty plea and the idea that the State suffers no substantial prejudice when a prejudgment motion to withdraw a guilty plea is granted because it may proceed to trial on the original charges or enter into a new plea bargain. But, the Court in this case explained that in focusing on considerations that are specific to a prejudgment motion to withdraw a guilty plea, the Lewis court lost sight of the appeal provision’s context—a motion for a new trial. In that context, the district court has discretion in deciding the motion, but that discretion is not as vast as with a prejudgment motion to withdraw a guilty plea, which may be granted for any reason that is fair and just. While the Lewis court suggested it would be a rare circumstance when the State could assert that a district court has exceeded the broad boundaries of judicial discretion in allowing a defendant to withdraw a plea before sentencing, the Court explained it is significantly more likely that the State can demonstrate that a district court exceeded its discretion in granting a motion for a new trial, particularly given the potential injustice if the defendant obtains an acquittal following an improvidently granted new trial. And the prejudice to the State is far more substantial when a motion for a new trial is granted—the significant time and resources expended to conduct the first trial are wasted.

The Court believed that these interests outweighed the policy justifications that the Lewis court relied upon to preclude the State from appealing a prejudgment order granting a new trial. The efficiency of the final judgment rule loses some weight when put against the costs, both financial and societal, of an improvidently granted new trial. In this respect, the Court believed there was no valid reason to distinguish between an order granting a new trial that is entered before final judgment (not appealable after Lewis) and one entered after final judgment (appealable).

Therefore, the Court held that because Lewis eliminated an appeal that the Legislature plainly afforded the State and because the rationale in Lewis was inapplicable to orders granting prejudgment motions for a new trial, Lewis was overruled to the extent that it would not permit an appeal by the State from an order granting a prejudgment motion for a new trial.

Lewis and interlocutory orders denying a motion for a new trial

The Court did not extend its holding to authorize a defendant to appeal from a prejudgment order denying a motion for a new trial. A prejudgment order denying a motion for a new trial is an intermediate order that can be reviewed on appeal from the judgment of conviction. The Court noted that concluding that NRS 177.015(1)(b) did not authorize an appeal from a prejudgment order denying a motion for a new trial would not eliminate a defendant’s right to challenge the order; rather, it merely mandates how and when a defendant may challenge the order. In contrast, the Court believed that allowing a defendant to appeal from intermediate orders would cause confusion in the district court about its jurisdiction to proceed with sentencing and entry of the judgment, which could cause extensive, unnecessary delay in both. Thus, the Court held that the policy considerations expressed in Lewis remain valid in that context, and that Lewis should remain undisturbed as it applies to orders denying a prejudgment motion for a new trial.

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