The Appellate Group

State of Utah v. Carter

State of Utah v. Carter, 2022 UT App 9 (Orme, J., majority; Tenney, J., concurring; Hagen, D., dissenting)

Criminal Law

Defendant set a fire to a vacant house. The fire marshal testified that the house was a “habitable structure.” On appeal, Defendant argued that the house was not a “habitable structure,” and thus his conviction should not be aggravated. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed, holding:

  • Assuming (without deciding) that the fire marshal’s testimony was impermissible, trial counsel acted reasonably in attempting to undermine the testimony through cross-examination rather than through an objection because he “elicited testimony that the house was vacant at the time of the second fire,” which supported trial counsel’s  definition of habitable structure under the statute.
  • Trial counsel was not ineffective when he failed to move for directed verdict for two reasons: (1) Defendant’s motion for a directed verdict was futile because he “had no chance of success” given that the district court had already indicated its disagreement with his theory as a matter of law, and (2) counsel could have foreseen a risk of the court ruling on the motion, and thus curbing counsel’s ability to make certain arguments to the jury.
  • OF NOTE: The court discusses the potentially contradictory nature of Utah’s aggravated arson statutory scheme and how “habitable” is defined. Judge Tenney’s concurring opinion provides an in-depth discussion about how the courts should assess futility in a case where the district court had already opinioned and rejected a particular argument.  Judge Hagen’s dissent was of the opinion that trial counsel’s failure to move for a directed verdict was ineffective assistance of counsel.

Read the full court opinion