State v. Nichols

In State v. Nichols, 208 W.Va. 432, 541 S.E.2d 310 (1999), the primary issue presented regarding prior convictions was whether a criminal defendant was entitled to stipulate to such convictions, in order to remove the collateral offenses from jury consideration, despite the fact that the prior convictions were necessary elements of the crime charged. In the event that his stipulation argument failed, Mr. Nichols proposed the alternative of a bifurcated trial so as to separate jury consideration of the underlying offense from the prior conviction evidence. Although the Court provided relief in Nichols based on the stipulation issue, we determined it necessary to also address the bifurcation issue "because to do otherwise suggests that a defendant is being forced to stipulate to a prior conviction status element or suffer having the jury be informed of the prior conviction." 208 W.Va. at 446, 541 S.E.2d at 324. The Court thereafter established the procedure by which criminal defendants who seek to challenge collateral conviction status elements separately from the underlying charge may obtain a bifurcated proceeding. This procedure, as set forth in syllabus points four and five of Nichols, provides that, after a request for bifurcation is made by a defendant, a trial court is to conduct a hearing at which the defendant carries the burden of producing satisfactory evidence to constitute a meritorious claim which defeats the validity of a prior conviction. The decision regarding the bifurcation request is within the trial court's discretion. 208 W.Va. at 434-35, 541 S.E.2d at 312-13. In State v. Nichols, the Court was asked to determine whether trial courts were required to accept a defendant's stipulation to the status element of an offense so as to prohibit a jury from hearing evidence regarding the status element. The Court resolved the issue in syllabus point 3 of Nichols, in part, by ruling that "if a defendant makes an offer to stipulate to a prior conviction(s) that is a status element of an offense, the trial court must permit such stipulation and preclude the state from presenting any evidence to the jury regarding the stipulated prior conviction(s)." Additionally, Nichols addressed the very rare instance wherein a defendant challenges being identified as the person having committed the status element offense. Nichols was hesitant to force a defendant in such a situation to have a unitary trial. However, Nichols was also cognizant of the fact that rarely do defendants ever have a legitimate basis to assert that they are not the person identified as having been convicted of a status element offense. Confronted with the rarity of such a challenge, the Court determined in Nichols that an opportunity for a bifurcated trial should exist for those rare instances when a legitimate status offense challenge could be made. Consequently, the Court held in syllabus point 4 of Nichols, in part, that: "The decision of whether to bifurcate these issues is within the discretion of the trial court. In exercising this discretion, a trial court should hold a hearing for the purpose of determining whether the defendant has a meritorious claim that challenges the legitimacy of the prior conviction. If the trial court is satisfied that the defendant's challenge has merit, then a bifurcated proceeding should be permitted. However, should the trial court determine that the defendant's claim lacks any relevant and sufficient evidentiary support, bifurcation should be denied and a unitary trial held."In short, the Court addressed the issue of the evidence necessary to establish a defendant's previous conviction and authorized bifurcation or stipulation in recidivist DUI prosecutions to avoid possible unfair prejudice from telling jurors about previous DUI offenses, overruling a prior case. In footnote twenty-four of Nichols, the Court addressed the prospectivity issue applicable in the criminal context and specified as follows: "While our holding today is applicable to any retrial of Mr. Nichols, our decision has no retroactive application and cannot be used or relied upon by a defendant convicted and sentenced before the filing date of this opinion. "A judicial decision in a criminal case is to be given prospective application only if: (a) It established a new principle of law; (b) its retroactive application would retard its operation; and (c) its retroactive application would produce inequitable results." Syl. pt. 5, in part, State v. Blake, 197 W.Va. 700, 478 S.E.2d 550 (1996)." (208 W.Va. at 445 n. 24, 541 S.E.2d at 323 n. 24.) In sum, the Court encountered a situation in which a defendant had requested the lower court to accept a stipulation of the prior DUI convictions and conceal the evidence of those convictions from jury consideration. The circuit court required the State to present evidence regarding the two prior convictions. The Court in Nichols was asked to "revisit the issue of whether it is mandatory that evidence of prior convictions be submitted to the jury in the prosecution of a subsequent DUI offense." Nichols, 208 W. Va. at 441, 541 S.E.2d at 319. The Court noted the absence of any "judicial reasoning or discussion supporting the assertions . . . that prior convictions must be submitted to the jury." Nichols, 208 W. Va. at 442, 541 S.E.2d at 320. The Court recognized that stipulated-to prior convictions that are status elements of a charge shall not be placed before the jury because of their inherently prejudicial nature. Nichols requires a colloquy between the trial court, the defendant, the prosecutor, and the defense counsel to discuss the exact nature of the status element stipulations, and to assure that the stipulations are knowingly and voluntarily made by the defendant.