State of Utah v. Vance

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State of Utah v. Vance, Case No. 2001151-CA, Filed October 18, 2001, 2001 UT App 306 IN THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

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State of Utah,
Plaintiff and Appellee,

v.

Stephen K. Vance,
Defendant and Appellant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION
(Not For Official Publication)

Case No. 20001151-CA

F I L E D
October 18, 2001 2001 UT App 306 -----

Third District, Murray Department
The Honorable Joseph C. Fratto, Jr.

Attorneys:
Shannon N. Romero, Salt Lake City, for Appellant
Fred Burmester, Salt Lake City, for Appellee

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Before Judges Bench, Billings, and Davis.

DAVIS, Judge:

On appeal, Vance asserts the trial court committed reversible error for failure to comply with the requirements of State v. Ramirez, 817 P.2d 774, 781 (Utah 1991), prior to allowing in-court witness identification.(1) We vacate and remand for a new trial.

Vance claims the trial court failed to adequately evaluate the reliability of the eyewitness identifications, as required by Ramirez, by failing to make factual findings and evaluate the same in accordance with the Ramirez factors.

"Whether a trial court is required to make findings of fact and legally determine the reliability of an eyewitness identification before admitting such testimony is a question of law, which we review for correctness." State v. Nelson, 950 P.2d 940, 942-43 (Utah Ct. App. 1997).(2)

When a trial court is presented with the issue of the admissibility of an eyewitness identification the court must preliminarily determine whether the identification is sufficiently reliable, and that its admission and consideration by the jury will not deny the defendant due process. See id. at 943. [C]ourts cannot properly sidestep their responsibility to perform the required constitutional admissibility analysis. To do so would leave protection of constitutional rights to the whim of a jury and would abandon the courts' responsibility to apply the law. Id. at 943 (quoting Ramirez, 817 P.2d at 778) (alteration in original). Therefore, the initial determination of whether eyewitness testimony is constitutionally reliable must be made by the trial court before it can be admitted. See id.

This case is analogous to Nelson. There, the State urged this court to assume that the trial court found facts consistent with its decision to admit the eyewitness testimony and perform the required Ramirez analysis. See id. at 944. In Nelson, the court acknowledged that a court may assume that a trial court made findings in accord with its decision, if such an assumption would be reasonable. See id. However, that court continued by stating: [I]n this case it would be unreasonable for this court to assume any findings were actually made where the trial court did not consider any evidence, did not discuss the reliability factors, and made no explicit determination of reliability. To assume the facts and perform the reliability analysis on appeal would eviscerate the Ramirez holding requiring that trial courts, as gatekeepers, make the initial determination as to admissibility. Id.

Here, the trial court considered no evidence other than proffers, some of which were disputed, did not discuss the reliability factors, and made no explicit determination of reliability. Accordingly, we decline to assume the court made findings in accord with its decision.

Accordingly, we vacate Vance's conviction and remand for a new trial.
 
 

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James Z. Davis, Judge -----

WE CONCUR:
 
 

______________________________
Russell W. Bench, Judge
 
 

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Judith M. Billings, Judge

1. Because we find that the trial court committed reversible error for failure to comply with the requirements of Ramirez, we do not reach the other issues presented on appeal.

2. It is undisputed that the trial court neither made nor evaluated factual findings.