Updates on criminal law in the West Virginia courts often focus on issues of Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, sentencing requirements, and when a defendant may be subjected to ineffective assistance of counsel. While these types of issues make for catchy headlines and good sound bites, a recent decision from the West Virginia Criminal Court highlights one of the most fundamental hurdles that criminal defendants must overcome when having their appeal heard by a judge – whether the appellate court has jurisdiction to consider their arguments. Jurisdiction is an issue that must always be considered by a court, and without jurisdiction, a defendant cannot have his or her claims heard by that court. While jurisdiction can be straightforward, such as bringing a lawsuit in the area where an injury occurred, jurisdiction over criminal cases becomes exceedingly complex when dealing with the many avenues for appeal and post-conviction motions that can be raised by defendants. In West Virginia v. Doom, the Supreme Court looked at who keeps jurisdiction over a criminal case when a defendant has filed both an appeal and a post-conviction motion with the trial court.
Mr. Doom was arrested in Braxton County, West Virginia after he was caught attempting to steal a flashlight and several air fresheners from an auto store. He was arrested, charges were brought against him, and he ultimately made a plea deal with the State of West Virginia, whereby he would plead guilty in exchange for the State recommending that his sentence run concurrently with another shoplifting sentence that he faced in a different county. The plea was entered, and the court scheduled a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, they sentenced Mr. Doom to one to 10 years in prison, to run consecutively with his other sentence. After the sentencing, Mr. Doom filed a motion under Rule 35(b) to reduce his sentence. At the same time, he filed an appeal with the West Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that his sentence was disproportionate to the minor offense for which he was charged. Before considering the merits of his appeal, the Supreme Court first questioned whether they had jurisdiction over the appeal, in light of Mr. Doom’s ongoing proceedings before the trial court.
Generally, only one court can have jurisdiction over a proceeding at a time. This ensures that a lawsuit proceeds in a relatively orderly fashion, with minimal delay and confusion. In Mr. Doom’s case, the West Virginia Supreme Court was concerned about the possibility that two courts would be weighing in on Mr. Doom’s conviction and sentence at the same time. In order to prevent that from occurring, the Supreme Court had to determine who had jurisdiction over his criminal defense claims. Relying on prior decisions handed down by the Supreme Court, it held that once a criminal appeal is perfected in the Supreme Court, an automatic stay occurs, preventing other proceedings in different courts from moving forward. It determined that such stays are mandatory under W.Va. Code 62-7-2 and exist until the Supreme Court makes a decision in the case. Thus, the Supreme Court held that it had jurisdiction to consider Mr. Doom’s appeal, regardless of any motions he had pending before the trial court, since such motions were stayed while the Supreme Court reviewed his appeal.
Such a holding suggests that criminal defendants should think carefully and strategically about their options after a conviction and sentence. If they believe that the relief they seek will be best accomplished with an appeal, it may make the most sense to immediately file and perfect a criminal appeal. However, if motions and relief before the trial court may be more helpful, a criminal appeal can be an impediment because it will force the trial court to suspend its consideration of such motions. An experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can help criminal defendants weigh these various options and determine their course of action. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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