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State v. Jaskolka

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

July 30, 2019


          Submitted: April 18, 2019

          9th Circuit Court-Manchester District Division

          Gordon J. MacDonald, attorney general (Susan P. McGinnis, senior assistant attorney general, on the brief), for the State.

          Gregory J. Ahlgren, of Manchester, on the brief, for the defendant.

          DONOVAN, J.

         The defendant, James Jaskolka, appeals the decision of the Circuit Court (Lyons, J.) denying his request to vacate his 1991 simple assault conviction and grant him a trial. We vacate the trial court's order, however, because it lacked jurisdiction to consider the merits of the defendant's motion.

         The following facts are undisputed. In June 1991, the defendant, upon consulting with court-appointed counsel, entered into a negotiated plea agreement by which the defendant agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, domestically-related simple assault. The court accepted his plea and imposed the negotiated sentence of a fine and a suspended jail sentence.

         Nearly 27 years later, the defendant filed a motion seeking to vacate his conviction, alleging that he was never advised of his constitutional right to a jury trial and, more pointedly, was not informed that a conviction for domestic assault would prohibit him from purchasing, owning, or possessing a firearm.[1]

         Before the trial court, the defendant claimed that his motion constituted a direct attack upon his conviction and, therefore, the United States Supreme Court decision in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969), requires an affirmative showing on the record that he entered his guilty plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. See Boykin, 395 U.S. at 242-43. The defendant argued that, in the absence of a record of the trial court's inquiry into the voluntary and knowing character of his decision to plead guilty, acceptance of his plea should be treated as plain error, requiring the State to demonstrate to a clear and convincing degree that the plea was voluntary or knowing in the respect specifically challenged. See State v. Arsenault, 153 N.H. 413, 416-17 (2006) (analyzing a defendant's collateral attack upon his knowledge and volition when entering a guilty plea). He further maintained that because there is "NO record of [his] volition and knowledge . . . of the right to a jury trial," "the only appropriate remedy is to vacate the conviction and schedule this case . . . for trial." The defendant did not request a hearing with the filing of his initial motion.

         The trial court denied the motion to vacate, noting that: (1) the defendant filed his motion 27 years after the plea; (2) in 1992, this court adopted Administrative Order 1992-2 that required courts to retain records of proceedings and case files for only 7 years; and (3) the defendant's entire case file and any audio recording of the proceeding has since been destroyed in accordance with the administrative rule. The trial court took judicial notice that, subsequent to the United States Supreme Court's decision in Boykin in 1969, district courts in New Hampshire developed forms to reflect a defendant's waiver of his or her rights in misdemeanor cases, the public defenders used those waiver forms when representing defendants entering guilty pleas, and district court judges conducted plea colloquies before accepting a defendant's plea. See Parke v. Raley, 506 U.S. 20, 29-32 (1992) (applying the "presumption of regularity" to collateral attacks on final judgments).

         The court found that it was "fundamentally unfair" for the defendant to delay moving to vacate his conviction until after the court system had destroyed the records of the case and then to require the State to bear the burden of proving a valid waiver. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing. The defendant moved for reconsideration, arguing that his position was, and always had been, that the burden shifted to the State in a direct attack on an underlying criminal conviction, "as there [is] here." The defendant, without explanation, requested an evidentiary hearing, but the trial court summarily denied the motion to reconsider. This appeal followed.

         The defendant makes numerous arguments before us as to why the trial court erred in denying his motion to vacate his conviction without a hearing. We need not address these arguments, however, because we conclude that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to address the merits of the defendant's motion. Although the parties did not address this issue on appeal, subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time, including on appeal, by the parties, or by this court sua sponte. State v. Demesmin, 159 N.H. 595, 597 (2010).

         Because the defendant's motion challenges his conviction long after the period for filing a direct appeal expired, see RSA 599:1 to:1-b (2001), his instant challenge constitutes a collateral attack upon the 1991 conviction. See State v. Lopez, 156 N.H. 193, 194, 197 (2007). The district division of the circuit court, however, is a court of limited jurisdiction with powers conferred upon it by statute. RSA 502-A:11 (Supp. 2018) (identifying the jurisdiction of the district court in criminal cases); RSA 490-F:18 (Supp. 2018) (explaining that statutes which reference the jurisdiction of the district court are deemed to refer to the circuit court). Consistent with this premise, the legislature has prescribed strict time limitations upon a defendant's right to appeal convictions in the circuit courts, see RSA 599:1 to:1-a, which, in turn, impose limitations upon the circuit court's jurisdiction. See State v. Flynn, 110 N.H. 451, 454 (1970) (concluding that the district court lacked jurisdiction to vacate its guilty finding after the expiration of the statutory period for appeal under RSA 599:1-a).

         Nonetheless, we have previously concluded that the district courts had "the authority and power to permit withdrawal of guilty pleas based on an infringement of a defendant's constitutional rights." State v. Beaulieu, 115 N.H. 483, 484 (1975) (citing State v. Daigle, 114 N.H. 679 (1974)). Indeed, in Daigle, Justice Grimes observed that motions seeking to withdraw an uncounseled guilty plea that would otherwise be barred by the statutory time limitations to appeal "are matters falling outside the normal issues raised on appeal" and that such pleadings are "in the nature of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus which provides a remedy for constitutional errors at the trial without limit of time." Daigle, 114 N.H. at 681 (quotations and ellipsis omitted). Other jurisdictions have similarly equated motions seeking to vacate a conviction filed after the expiration of the applicable appeal period with petitions seeking extraordinary relief, such as petitions for a writ of habeas corpus or coram nobis. See People v. Totari, 4 Cal.Rptr.3d 613, 616 (Ct. App. 2003) (observing that a motion ...

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