Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Feldhaus v. Missouri[1]

Opinion handed down April 20, 2010.
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that sentencing definitions of the Missouri Revised Statutes § 577.023[2] did not violate the void for vagueness doctrine, and, as a result, the appellant’s constitutional rights of due process were not violated.The court reaffirmed that an appellant cannot raise constitutional claims once he has been counseled and voluntarily pleaded guilty.

I. Facts and Holding

Damon Feldhaus (hereinafter “Feldhaus”) was arrested for driving while intoxicated on June 10, 2007 and again on Nov. 27, 2007 for driving under the influence of marijuana.[3] In both cases, Feldhaus was charged with a class B felony and was found to be a “chronic offender” because he previously had pleaded guilty to at least four intoxication-related traffic offenses in circuit court.[4] Feldhaus subsequently pleaded guilty to both counts and the State recommended two concurrent terms of eight years imprisonment.[5]

A. Petition for Post-Conviction Relief

Feldhaus filed a pro se motion pursuant to Missouri Court Rule 24.035 to appeal his conviction.[6] He alleged that he was denied due process of law because Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.023, which defines “aggravated offender,” “chronic offender,” and “persistent offender,” violated the void for vagueness doctrine.[7] However, Feldhaus never raised any constitutional issues during his guilty plea or sentencing hearing.[8] The motion court found that no facts were in dispute and the statute was not void for vagueness.[9]

B. Standard of Review

The review of the overruling of a Rule 24.035 motion is limited to determining whether the trial court’s findings and conclusions are clearly erroneous.[10] “The general rule . . . is that a guilty plea waives all nonjurisdictional defects, including statutory and constitutional guaranties. The failure to challenge the constitutionality of a statute at the earliest opportunity waives the claim.”[11]

C. Holding

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that Feldhaus failed to raise the constitutional issue at the earliest opportunity and prior to pleading guilty; therefore, the issue was waived.[12] The court also held that, even if Feldhaus had properly raised the issue, his argument would have failed because § 577.035 is not unconstitutionally vague.[13]

II. Legal Background

A. Guilty Plea Equals Waiver

The State argued that Feldhaus’ due process claim was not raised at the earliest opportunity, was non-jurisdictional, and was waived by his guilty pleas.[14] The Supreme Court of Missouri found that “the general rule in Missouri is that a plea of guilty voluntarily and understandably made waives all non-jurisdictional defects and defenses.”[15] The court noted two instances in which it will recognize an exception to the general rule of waiver: (1) when “it can be determined on the face of the record that the court had no power to enter the conviction or impose the sentence”[16] and (2) in a few specific instances when the waiver deals with double jeopardy.[17]

The court did not address the first type of exception and dismissed Feldhaus’ reliance on the double jeopardy exception.[18] It reasoned that those specific instances were irrelevant to Feldhaus’ case, but also noted that, in some cases involving double jeopardy, constitutional rights also can be waived.[19]

B. Constitutional Vagueness

Feldhaus argued that § 577.023 was unconstitutionally vague because it included “or more” in its definitions.[20] Specifically, Feldhaus argued that the statute[21] provided inadequate guidance in interpretation and allowed for “arbitrary and discriminatory application” on various discriminatory bases, such as race, sex, and wealth, among others.[22]

Cocktail Fortune, Inc. v. Supervisor of Liquor Control sets forth the test of whether a statute is unconstitutionally vague: “whether the language conveys to a person of ordinary intelligence a sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices.”[23] Feldhaus stated that “chronic offender” is clearly defined in § 577.023 and the words “or more” are easily understood.[24] Thus, the court reasoned that, under § 577.023, a person with ordinary intelligence has sufficient notice that a person who has four or more intoxication-related offenses may be convicted of a class B felony as a chronic offender.[25]

The court also evaluated whether the § 577.023 language violated the vagueness doctrine as applied to Feldhaus’ case.[26] In State v. Brown, the court had held that the vagueness doctrine must be tested within the factual parameters to evaluate whether the statutory language, as applied, was vague and confusing.[27] Because Feldhaus did not plead any facts that indicated the State had applied the statute in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner and because the court determined § 577.023 gave clear notice of the prohibited conduct, the court concluded that the statute was not vague when applied to the present case.[28]

III. Comment

This case serves as a warning to future litigants that objections, including constitutional issues, must be raised at the earliest opportunity in the litigation process. In this case, the appellant isolated a few words of a statute and hoped to capitalize on their alleged vagueness in order to raise a constitutional issue on appeal. The appellant failed to prove vagueness. But even if the statute had been sufficiently vague, the point would have been moot because the appellant waived the constitutional issue by pleading guilty. This case is a reminder that a guilty plea waives all jurisdictional defects.

-Linda Man

[1] No. 90585 (Mo. April 20, 2010). The West reporter citation is Feldhaus v. State, 311 S.W.3d 802 (Mo. banc 2010).
[2] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.023(1)(a), (2)(a), 5(a) (West 2010) (An “‘aggravated offender’ is a person who: . . . has pleaded guilty to or has been found guilty of three or more intoxication-related traffic offenses . . . . A ‘chronic offender’ is a person who has pleaded guilty to or has been found guilty of four or more intoxication-related traffic offenses . . . . A ‘persistent offender’ is . . . a person who has pleaded guilty or has been found guilty of two or more intoxication-related traffic offenses.”).
[3] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *1-2.
[4] Id at *2.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] “Appellate review of the trial court's action on the motion filed under this Rule 24.035 shall be limited to a determination of whether the findings and conclusions of the trial court are clearly erroneous.” Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 24.035(k).
[8] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *2.
[9] Id. at *3.
[10] Id.
[11] State v. Sexton, 75 S.W.3d 304, 309 (Mo. App. S.D. 2002).
[12] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *5.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at *2.
[15] Id. See Hagan v. State, 836 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Mo. banc 1992) (quoting State v. Cody, 525 S.W.2d 333, 335 (Mo. banc 1975)) (both cases were overruled on other grounds).
[16] Hagan, 836 S.W.2d at 461.
[17] See State v. Neher, 213 S.W.3d 44, 48 (Mo. banc 2007); State ex rel. Green v. Moore, 131 S.W.3d 803, 805 (Mo. banc 2004).
[18] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *2.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at *3.
[21] Mo. Rev. Stat., supra, note 2.
[22] Id.
[23] 994 S.W.2d 955, 957 (Mo. banc 1999).
[24] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *3.
[25] Id. at *6-7.
[26] Id.
[27]140 S.W.3d 51, 55 (Mo. banc 2004) (citing Cocktail Fortune, 994 SW.2d at 958).
[28] Feldhaus, 2010 WL 1655451 at *3.