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State v. Rohra

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

November 21, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Plaintiff/Respondent,
v.
ALOK KUMAR ROHRA, Defendant/Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Hon. Michael F. Stelzer[1]

          OPINION

          LISA VAN AMBURG, JUDGE.

         Alok Rohra appeals the trial court's judgment and sentence on a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. Rohra asserts that an Oklahoma deferral of judgment and sentence is not a prior "conviction" rendering gun possession unlawful under Missouri's felonious possession statute. We agree and would reverse and vacate Rohra's present conviction on that count. However, given the general interest and importance of the question as to which state's law determines the existence of a conviction, we transfer the case to the Supreme Court of Missouri pursuant to Rule 83.02.

         Background

         In 2013, the State of Oklahoma charged Rohra with possession and intent to distribute a controlled substance. Rohra pleaded guilty and received a deferral of judgment under Oklahoma law. Then in 2015, during a traffic stop in St. Louis, officers discovered Rohra in possession of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and a firearm. The State charged Rohra with misdemeanor possession and, as relevant here, unlawful possession of a firearm. Specifically, the State charged that Rohra's gun possession was unlawful by virtue of his earlier drug offense in Oklahoma. Rohra moved to dismiss the unlawful possession charge, arguing that his deferral from Oklahoma was not a prior conviction rendering gun possession unlawful. The trial court denied Rohra's motion on the basis that, under Oklahoma law, Rohra's deferral is deemed a conviction for purposes of subsequent firearm possession. Rohra then pleaded guilty on all three counts.

         Rohra appeals and asserts that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm because the State had no factual basis for the charge. Rohra argues that his possession of a firearm at the time of his arrest in St. Louis could not have been unlawful because he had no prior felony conviction as that term is used in Missouri. Rohra's point presents a question of law, which we review de novo. State v. Smothers, 297 S.W.3d 626, 632 (Mo. App. 2009).

         Preservation

         As a preliminary matter, the State asserts that Rohra waived his claim by withdrawing his motion to dismiss and ultimately pleading guilty. The State originally charged Rohra with unlawful possession based on a prior Missouri misdemeanor conviction. Rohra filed a motion to dismiss that charge because the underlying prior conviction was not a felony. At a hearing on that motion October 1, 2015, the State filed an amended complaint identifying the Oklahoma deferral as the prior felony. In response, Rohra orally amended his motion to dismiss, challenging the complaint based on the Oklahoma deferral. Although the record on Rohra's motions is unclear, [2] the trial court ultimately considered and ruled on Rohra's amended motion in February 2016. Rohra persisted in his challenge by filing a motion to quash the indictment in June 2016, which the court heard and summarily denied that August.

         We deem the matter properly before us for review on the merits. The trial court's written judgment, which begins "the court has before it Defendant's motion to dismiss, " belies the State's characterization of the record. Clearly, the trial court did not view Rohra's amended challenge as withdrawn or otherwise waived. Moreover, even if Rohra hadn't raised the issue at trial, a defect in the information may be raised for the first time on appeal. State v. Sparks, 916 S.W.2d 234, 237 (Mo. App. S.D. 1995), citing State v. Parkhurst, 845 S.W.2d 31 (Mo. 1992). Even when first raised on appeal, an information may be deemed insufficient if (1) it does not, by any reasonable construction, charge the offense of which the defendant was convicted and (2) the defendant demonstrates actual prejudice as a result of the insufficiency. Id. As discussed below, these conditions exist in this case.

         Rohra also did not waive his claim of error by pleading guilty. It is well-settled that "a person who pleads guilty to a criminal offense has a right to challenge the sufficiency of the information or indictment by direct appeal." Dodds v. State, 60 S.W.3d 1, 6 (Mo. App. E.D. 2001).

         Lastly here, the State argues that Rohra's appellate point of error is deficient in that it attacks the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss and not directly the subsequent indictment. "A brief impedes disposition on the merits when it is so deficient that it fails to give notice to this court and to the other parties as to the issues presented on appeal." Comp & Soft, Inc. v. AT & T Corp., 252 S.W.3d 189, 193-94 (Mo. App. E.D. 2008). Rohra's point does not impede disposition on the merits. Both the State and this court fully understand the substantive issue presented on appeal. Rohra frames his argument around the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss because that written order contains the trial court's legal analysis for this court to review. But Rohra's brief also cites to his subsequent motion to quash the indictment and the trial court's summary denial of that motion. Clearly Rohra's point challenges that ruling as well. As a matter of policy, this court prefers to decide cases on their merits whenever possible. Id. Rohra's point of error is adequately preserved and presented for our review on the merits.

         Analysis

         Missouri's felon-in-possession statute states in pertinent part:

A person commits the crime of unlawful possession of a firearm if such person knowingly has a firearm in his or her possession and such person has been convicted of a felony under the laws of this state or of a crime under the laws of any state or of the United States which, if committed within this state, would be a felony.

§571.070(1). To simplify, a person commits unlawful possession if he carries a firearm after being convicted of a crime that is a felony either in Missouri or elsewhere, if Missouri also would consider it a felony. Thus, the central dispute here is: what ...


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