State v. Breeding

Decision Date08 May 2008
Docket NumberNo. DA 07-0365.,DA 07-0365.
Citation2008 MT 162,184 P.3d 313
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Benjamin BREEDING, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Benjamin Breeding was convicted of felony theft in the District Court for the Eighteenth Judicial District, Gallatin County. The District Court imposed a sentence that included $7,082.42 in restitution. Breeding appeals, contending that the District Court did not have authority to impose restitution on him of more than $1,408.89 in this case. We agree and thus reverse the court's imposition of the excess $5,673.53 in restitution.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On January 5, 2004, Sherri Smith reported her 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee stolen from an alley in Bozeman, Montana. Apparently, she had started the vehicle to warm it up and had left the engine running and the doors unlocked while she finished up at work. Seizing on this opportunity, Ryan Seghetti, who had just come out of the Crystal Bar, hopped in the vehicle and drove off. Seghetti went to the home of an individual identified in the record simply as "Matt," who lived in Belgrade. Breeding was at Matt's house when Seghetti arrived. Seghetti suggested that they all go for a drive, and Breeding and Matt agreed.

¶ 3 Seghetti eventually decided to take the Jeep off-road. While driving through a field, he hit a snow-covered haystack, causing significant body damage to the vehicle's front end. Seghetti then drove Matt back to his house, after which Seghetti suggested to Breeding that they drive to West Yellowstone or Big Sky. Breeding, however, proposed that they drive to California (where Breeding's father lived), and they decided to do that instead. Breeding was aware at this point that the Jeep had been stolen. Seghetti and Breeding took turns driving to San Diego, where Seghetti ultimately was stopped by police due to a broken left-turn signal. The Jeep was impounded and eventually returned to Smith.

¶ 4 The Bozeman police learned through their investigation that Seghetti and Breeding were involved in the theft. Indeed, Seghetti and Breeding both admitted as much during interviews with the police in April and December 2004. The State charged Breeding with felony theft, in violation of § 45-6-301, MCA, on March 18, 2005. He initially pleaded not guilty, but the parties ultimately entered into a plea agreement under § 46-12-211(1)(c), MCA. Pursuant to the State's proposal, Breeding agreed to plead guilty to felony theft and the State agreed not to oppose a defense motion for his release on his own recognizance pending sentence. Furthermore, Breeding and the State agreed to recommend jointly that he be sentenced to the Department of Corrections ("DOC") for a period of five years, all suspended.

¶ 5 The District Court accepted Breeding's guilty plea on December 19, 2006, and ordered a presentence investigation. A probation/parole officer with the DOC conducted the investigation and filed a report ("PSI") on February 1, 2007. Among other things, the PSI contained a recommendation that Breeding pay restitution for damage done to Smith's vehicle. Breeding objected to this recommendation in two presentencing memoranda and again at the sentencing hearing. He asserted that of the $7,382.42 requested by Smith, $5,673.53 derived exclusively from body damage to her Jeep. He argued that he could not be charged with the $5,673.53 because Seghetti was in exclusive control of the vehicle when it was damaged; because Breeding did not assist or encourage Seghetti in driving the Jeep recklessly into the field where Seghetti hit the haystack but, rather, tried to dissuade Seghetti from driving errantly and wildly; and because Breeding cannot be held liable for the damage simply by being present when it occurred. Relying on State v. Beavers, 2000 MT 145, ¶ 12, 300 Mont. 49, ¶ 12, 3 P.3d 614, ¶ 12, Breeding further argued that a defendant may not be ordered to pay restitution in excess of the damages caused by his criminal conduct. In this regard, Breeding emphasized that there were two distinct events related to the theft of the Jeep: first, Seghetti stole the vehicle, picked up Breeding and Matt, and then damaged it; and second, Breeding suggested that he and Seghetti drive to California in the vehicle, and Breeding participated in driving the vehicle to San Diego with knowledge that it had been stolen.

¶ 6 The prosecutor responded that because Breeding engaged in a "joint venture" with Seghetti to travel to California in the stolen Jeep, Breeding was "accountable" for Seghetti's actions (even though Breeding had pleaded guilty to theft, not accountability). The prosecutor also argued that "while that Jeep was in his control, whether or not he was behind the driver wheel or not, he should be held responsible, jointly and severally, of course, for the damage caused to the vehicle." The prosecutor pointed out that the Jeep was in a damaged condition at the point Breeding and Seghetti drove it to California, and he asserted that "but for" Breeding's conduct of stealing the Jeep, "this vehicle would not have been injured and the victim would not be out an additional $5,000."

¶ 7 The District Court decided that Breeding could be charged with the damage to the Jeep, reasoning as follows:

In this case, Mr. Breeding apparently did not actively participate at the initial theft of the vehicle involved. However, he did participate in that he joined the co-defendant [Seghetti] on a trip to California to visit Mr. Breeding's father and, at that time, he knew that the vehicle was stolen and he participated in driving the vehicle to California knowing that the vehicle was stolen. And while he was not driving at the time that the vehicle was damaged and did not necessarily encourage the conduct that resulted in the damage, the Court agrees with the State that participating in the offense does qualify Mr. Breeding as being jointly and severally responsible for the restitution for the damage in this case. The Court makes that determination after consideration of the arguments and legal principles identified by [defense counsel] in her brief. The Court agrees that it's maybe a more marginal case than sometimes and somewhat different than, for instance, the case cited of [Sloan v. Fauque, 239 Mont. 383, 784 P.2d 895 (1989)]. However, the Court thinks that Mr. Breeding's knowledge that the vehicle was stolen and his active participation in taking the vehicle out of state to California does make him sufficiently responsible, and that his involvement was more than just that he was simply present when the damage occurred.

Therefore, the Court finds that he should be responsible for the full amount of restitution for the damage to the vehicle, as well as the other restitution expenses requested by the victim in this matter.

¶ 8 The parties had agreed earlier that $300.00 of the $7,382.42 requested by Smith was for music tapes that were still in the Jeep. Therefore, the District Court reduced the $7,382.42 amount by $300.00 and imposed a restitution obligation of $7,082.42. The court stated that Breeding and Seghetti (who was sentenced in Cause No. DC-05-074) were jointly and severally responsible for this amount. Finally, the court imposed the agreed-to five-year suspended sentence. Breeding now appeals.

ISSUE

¶ 9 The sole issue on appeal is whether the District Court lacked authority to impose a restitution obligation on Breeding for the body damage to the Jeep.

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 10 With a criminal sentence (such as Breeding's suspended sentence) that is statutorily ineligible for review by the Sentence Review Division because it lacks at least one year of actual incarceration, our review is two-tiered: we review the sentence for both legality and abuse of discretion. State v. Herd, 2004 MT 85, ¶¶ 16-23, 320 Mont. 490, ¶¶ 16-23, 87 P.3d 1017, ¶¶ 16-23. Our review for legality is confined to determining whether the sentencing court had statutory authority to impose the sentence, whether the sentence falls within the parameters set by the applicable sentencing statutes, and whether the court adhered to the affirmative mandates of the applicable sentencing statutes. State v. Stephenson, 2008 MT 64, ¶ 15, 342 Mont. 60, ¶ 15, 179 P.3d 502, ¶ 15. This determination is a question of law and, as such, our review is de novo. Stephenson, ¶ 15. A sentencing court abuses its discretion when it acts arbitrarily without employment of conscientious judgment or exceeds the bounds of reason, resulting in substantial injustice. State v. Brotherton, 2008 MT 119, ¶ 10, 342 Mont. 511, ¶ 10, 182 P.3d 88, ¶ 10.

¶ 11 We review a district court's findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard. State v. Weaver, 2008 MT 86, ¶ 9, 342 Mont. 196, ¶ 9, 179 P.3d 534, ¶ 9. Findings of fact are clearly erroneous if they are not supported by substantial evidence, if the court has misapprehended the effect of the evidence, or if our review of the record leaves us with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Weaver, ¶ 9.

DISCUSSION

¶ 12 A district court's authority to impose sentences in criminal cases is defined and constrained by statute, and a district court has no power to impose a sentence in the absence of specific statutory authority. State v. Setters, 2001 MT 101, ¶ 21, 305 Mont. 253, ¶ 21, 25 P.3d 893, ¶ 21. Under §§ 46-18-201(5) and -241(1), MCA (2003), if a person has been found guilty of an offense and the sentencing judge finds that any "victim" has sustained a "pecuniary loss," the sentencing judge "shall," as part of...

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