STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA,
Plaintiff Below, Appellee
DAVID M. REED,
Defendant Below, Appellant
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cabell County
Honorable Alfred E. Ferguson, Judge
Civil Action No. 03-F-51
Submitted: October 11, 2005
Filed: November 29, 2005
2. Failure to observe a constitutional right constitutes reversible error unless it can be shown that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Syllabus Point 5, State v. Blair, 158 W.Va. 647, 214 S.E.2d 330 (1975).
This case is before the Court upon the appeal of the appellant, David M. Reed. On March 11, 2003, the appellant was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court of Cabell County of third offense domestic battery and thereafter received an enhanced sentence pursuant to the habitual criminal statute. The appellant argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion for bifurcation to contest the validity of his prior convictions in accordance with State v. McCraine, 214 W.Va. 188, 588 S.E.2d 177 (2003), an opinion released by this Court shortly after the appellant's trial. By order dated April 23, 2003, the appellant was sentenced to two-to-five years in the State penitentiary. Based upon the parties' briefs and arguments in this proceeding, as well as the relevant statutory and case law, we are of the opinion that the circuit court did not commit reversible error and accordingly, affirm the decision below.
A trial court must grant bifurcation in all cases tried before a jury in which a criminal defendant seeks to contest the validity of any alleged prior conviction as a status element and timely requests that the jury consider the issue of prior conviction separately from the issue of the underlying charge. To the extent that our decision in State v. Nichols, 208 W.Va. 432, 541 S.E.2d 310 (1999), conflicts with this holding it is hereby modified.
While McCraine was decided after the appellant was convicted and sentenced, he argues that his case falls within the boundaries for retroactive application of that case. In Syllabus Point 3 of State v. Gangwer, 168 W.Va. 190, 283 S.E.2d 839 (1981), this Court held, [i]n the absence of any substantial countervailing factors, where a new rule of criminal law is made of a nonconstitutional nature, it will be applied retroactively only to those cases in litigation or on appeal where the same legal point has been preserved. In addition, footnote 21 from McCraine provides:
Since our decision regarding bifurcation is a procedural requirement and 'prophylactic standard[ ] designed to safeguard the right of every [similarly situated] criminal defendant to' a fair trial, it has limited retroactive effect. State v. Blake, 197 W.Va. 700, 712, 478 S.E.2d 550, 562 (1996). The application of our decision today, therefore, is limited to the retrial of Appellant and to cases in litigation or on appeal during the pendency of this appeal in which the issue has been properly preserved. Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Gangwer, infra.
The appellant's counsel moved for bifurcation on February 19, 2003, and his motion was denied on March 6, 2003. Based upon that denial the appellant stipulated to the two prior domestic battery convictions. The appellant maintains that since McCraine was decided after his March 13, 2003, conviction, and after his April 23, 2003, sentencing, but before his September 1, 2004, petition for appeal was filed, that retroactively applies to his case. Conversely, the State contends that the appellant should not receive the benefit of the new procedural rule because the appellant had not yet filed his petition for appeal by the time McCraine was actually decided by this Court on May 16, 2003.
The State's assertion that retroactivity is inapplicable in this case simply because the appellant's petition for appeal was not yet filed at the time of our decision in McCraine is inconsistent with our prior holdings. In fact, in State v. Blake, 197 W.Va. 700, 711-12, 478 S.E.2d 550, 561-62 (1996), we explained that, [a] conviction and sentence becomes final for purposes of retroactivity analysis when the availability of direct appeal to this Court is exhausted or the time period for such expires. While our review of the record
leads us to conclude that the appellant's case was in litigation or on appeal for purposes of retroactivity, our analysis does not stop there.
We now turn to the requirement as set forth in Syllabus Point 3 of Gangwer, supra, that the application of retroactivity is limited to cases in litigation or on appeal in which the issue has been properly preserved. It is the State's contention that the appellant did not timely preserve his objection as required by Gangwer. We agree.
When the circuit court refused the appellant's motion to bifurcate, the appellant stipulated to his two prior domestic violence convictions without any argument or presentation to the contrary. The appellant simply stood silent and did not exercise his right under then-existing law to request a pre-trial hearing on the bifurcation issue. See Syllabus Point 4, State v. Nichols, 208 W.Va. 432, 541 S.E.2d 310 (1999). Thus, the appellant is not similarly situated with individuals who were denied bifurcation by a circuit court, who then requested a hearing on the issue of bifurcation, and whose cases were in litigation or pending on appeal when this Court decided McCraine.
The appellant raised the issue of bifurcation for the first time on appeal based solely upon our decision in McCraine. Applying McCraine retroactively to this case would undermine the principles of limited retroactivity and defeat the fundamental rule that
similarly situated defendants should be treated the same. We believe that those whose appeals were pending at the time of this Court's decision in McCraine, who properly preserved the issue below, should benefit from that decision; however, the appellant is not in that category. Consequently, the appellant is not entitled to the benefit of our holding in McCraine.
We must also point out that even if we had applied McCraine retroactively to the appellant's case, he still would not have survived a harmless error analysis. In footnote 21 of McCraine, we explained that our new requirement of bifurcation was a procedural requirement and 'prophylactic standard[ ] designed to safeguard the right of every [similarly situated] criminal defendant to' a fair trial [and that] it has limited retroactive effect. (Citation omitted.). With that in mind, it is well settled that, [m]ost errors, including constitutional ones are subject to harmless error analysis. Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275, 278 (1993). In State v. Guthrie, 194 W.Va. 657, 461 S.E.2d 163 (1995), we explained that, [a]s to error not involving the erroneous admission of evidence, we have held that nonconstitutional error is harmless when it is highly probable the error did not contribute to the judgment. (Citations omitted.).
Likewise, in State v. Blair, 158 W.Va. 647, 659, 214 S.E.2d 330, 337 (1975), we noted that [t]he doctrine of harmless error is firmly established by statute, court rule and decisions as a salutary aspect of the criminal law of this State. In a constitutional context, the doctrine is also applied because appellate courts are not bound to reverse for a technical violation of a fundamental right. (Citations omitted.) In Syllabus Point 5 of Blair, we further held, [f]ailure to observe a constitutional right constitutes reversible error unless it can be shown that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.
Equally important, as we said in State v. Salmons, 203 W.Va. 561, 582, 509 S.E.2d 842, 863 (1998), [i]t defies logic for this Court to hold that a harmless error analysis applies to substantive constitutional violations, yet hold that a harmless error analysis does not apply to a prophylactic rule designed to protect enforcement of a constitutional right. In fact, [o]ur cases consistently have held that nonconstitutional errors are harmless unless the reviewing court has grave doubt as to whether the [error] substantially swayed the verdict. State v. Potter, 197 W.Va. 734, 748, 478 S.E.2d 742, 756 (1996). See State v. Rahman, 199 W.Va. 144, 483 S.E.2d 273 (1996); State v. Young, 185 W.Va. 327, 406 S.E.2d 758 (1991); State v. Ferrell, 184 W.Va. 123, 399 S.E.2d 834 (1990). See also West Virginia Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(a) (Any error, defect, irregularity, or variance which does not affect substantial rights shall be disregarded.).
In this case, there is simply no evidence suggesting that the appellant's stipulation to his prior crimes contributed to the judgment against him. Moreover, based upon the appellant's stipulation, the State did not disclose the appellant's prior convictions to the jury during the guilt phase of his trial even though there was substantial evidence proving those prior convictions. This is confirmed by the record before us which contains a certified copy of a criminal complaint and disposition sheet from April 18, 1996, stating that an individual named David Reed, with the same birth date and other identifying information as the appellant, pled guilty to domestic battery and served two days incarceration. The record also contains an indictment charging David Reed with third offense domestic battery and malicious wounding.
It is difficult for this Court to understand how the appellant was prejudiced by his admission to his prior offenses and the circuit court's denial of bifurcation. The appellant did not object to the circuit court's denial of his motion, he did not request a hearing or present any evidence on the issue, and he did not raise it in his post-trial motions. Moreover, the appellant actually benefitted from his stipulation to his prior offences because the State agreed not to introduce West Virginia Rule of Evidence 404(b) (See footnote 3) evidence in return for his stipulation, which included his two prior convictions for domestic battery. Thus, even if the appellant had been able to use our holding in McCraine retroactively, any violation would have been deemed harmless under these circumstances.
Our review of this matter does not indicate any error by the lower court, and we do not find that the lower court acted in an arbitrary or irrational manner. We consequently affirm the circuit court's decision. (See footnote 4)