State v. Crittenden

Decision Date13 February 2009
Docket NumberCR-07-1137.
Citation17 So.3d 253
PartiesEx parte State of Alabama. In re STATE of Alabama v. Vanessa CRITTENDEN.
CourtAlabama Court of Criminal Appeals

Christopher E. Connolly, district atty., and William I. Powell, chief asst. district atty., Florence, for petitioner.

Curtis Simpson, Florence, for respondent.

PER CURIAM.

The State of Alabama filed this petition for a writ of mandamus directing Judge Michael Jones to set aside the sentence he imposed on Vanessa Crittenden and to sentence her according to the Habitual Felony Offender Act, § 13A-5-9, Ala.Code 1975 ("the HFOA"), and the mandatory drug-enhancement provisions contained in §§ 13A-12-250 and 13A-12-270, Ala.Code 1975. In August 2007, Crittenden was indicted for the unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, specifically, selling crack cocaine to a confidential informant on January 4, 2007. She executed a plea agreement with the State and stipulated that she had four prior felony convictions. At sentencing the State proved that Crittenden had three prior felony convictions1 and that the drug sale made the basis of the indictment had occurred within three miles of a school and a housing project. The State moved to invoke the HFOA. Judge Jones denied the State's motion and sentenced Crittenden to 80 months in prison pursuant to the voluntary sentencing standards. The State objected and moved Judge Jones to resentence Crittenden to a minimum of 30 years in prison. Judge Jones denied the State's motion. The State then filed this petition for a writ of mandamus.2

Initially, we note that the State may file a petition for a writ of mandamus to challenge an illegal sentence. See State v. Monette, 887 So.2d 314 (Ala.Crim.App. 2004).

The State argues that the HFOA and the drug-enhancement provisions are mandatory and jurisdictional and that nothing in the Alabama Sentencing Reform Act of 2003 ("the Act"), as amended effective October 1, 2006, abrogates these mandatory provisions. Specifically, it argues that because the voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards have yet to be enacted, they require additional legislative action, and the sentence imposed on Crittenden pursuant to them is invalid.

Crittenden responded that, under the plain language of the Act, the Act takes precedence over the HFOA and any other mandatory sentencing provisions. She further argues that because her sentence is within the range recommended by the guidelines it is not reviewable by this Court.

The initial voluntary sentencing standards, codified at § 12-25-31 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, became effective on June 20, 2003. Section 12-25-31, Ala.Code 1975, states the purpose of the Act, in pertinent part, as follows:

"(a) It is essential that Alabama manage its criminal justice system in the manner best able to protect public safety and make the most effective and efficient use of correctional resources. Based on the findings and recommendations of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, the Legislature finds that all of the following are necessary to protect public safety by providing a fair, effective and efficient criminal justice system;

"(1) Voluntary sentencing standards used to guide judicial decision makers in determining the most appropriate sentence for convicted felony offenders.

"(2) The abolition of traditional parole and good time credits for convicted felons.

"(3) The availability of a continuum of punishment options."

Section 12-25-34(a)(3) and (4), Ala.Code 1975, as amended effective October 1, 2006, further states:

"(3) The commission shall develop and present the initial voluntary sentencing standards to the Legislature before or during the 2006 Regular Session. These standards shall be introduced in the 2006 Regular Session and shall become effective on October 1 following the 2006 Regular Session, if approved by an act of the Legislature passed during that session. The initial voluntary sentencing standards based on sentences imposed shall apply to convictions for felony offenses sentenced on or after [October 1, 2006] and committed before the effective date of the voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards.

"(4) The commission shall develop and present voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards to the Legislature before or during the 2009 Regular Session. These standards shall be introduced in the 2009 Regular Session and shall become effective on October 1 following the 2009 Regular Session, if approved by an act of the Legislature passed during that session. The voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards shall apply only to felony offenses committed on or after the effective date of these standards."

(Emphasis added.)

Although the initial voluntary sentencing standards have been enacted, the next stage, the voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards, have yet to be enacted.

Section 12-25-36, Ala.Code 1975, provides, in pertinent part:

"When a judge sentences based on the voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards, all of the following rules shall apply:

"....

"(3) The minimum term of sentence shall be consistent with the sentence range recommended in the voluntary truth-in-sentencing standards for the worksheet score of an offender. No offender sentenced to incarceration may be released from incarceration before the expiration date of the minimum term of sentence."

(Emphasis added.)

The sentencing guidelines and worksheets that were adopted when the initial voluntary sentencing standards became effective in 2006 recommend that two worksheets be completed for each eligible offense.3 The worksheets separate the offenses into three categories: offenses against the person, property offenses, and drug offenses. The first worksheet concerns whether the guidelines recommend a prison or nonprison sentence. This worksheet assesses the nature of the current offense, prior felony convictions, prior incarceration on a sentence of one year or more, the number of juvenile adjudications, and whether a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the offense. The second worksheet concerns the length of sentence recommended by the guidelines. This worksheet assigns numerical values to the current conviction, the number of prior felony convictions, the number of prior sentences for one year or more, and the number of prior sentences imposed that were for less than one year. At the end of each worksheet is the following statement: "Reason recommendation not accepted." Also, the general instructions for completing the worksheets state: "Once a sentence has been selected from the recommended sentence range, it is up to the sentencing judge to decide how it shall be imposed." General instruction no. 7, p. 2.

Crittenden pleaded guilty to unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, a violation of § 13A-12-211, Ala.Code 1975. According to the initial voluntary sentencing guidelines she was eligible for consideration under the Act. Thus, the court completed the worksheet entitled "Drug Prison In/Out." Based on the nature of the offense and the number of prior felony convictions Crittenden's total score was "11." For a score of "11," the guidelines recommend a term of imprisonment. The second worksheet, the "Drug Prison Sentence Length Worksheet," was then completed. Based on the nature of the offense and the number of her prior felony convictions Crittenden scored a "164." The guidelines recommend that for a score of 164 Crittenden receive a straight sentence of between 30 to 104 months. The circuit court sentenced Crittenden to a straight 80-month term of imprisonment and stated in its sentencing order: "The defendant is not to be released from incarceration before the expiration of that minimum term. [§ 12-25-36(3)]."

Section 12-25-34(c), Ala.Code 1975, addresses existing sentencing-enhancement provisions and states:

"Voluntary sentencing standards shall take into account and include statewide historically based sentence ranges, including all applicable statutory minimums and sentence enhancement provisions, including the Habitual Felony Offender Act, with adjustments made to reflect current sentencing policies. No additional penalties pursuant to any sentence enhancement statute shall apply to sentences imposed based on the voluntary sentencing standards."

(Emphasis added.)4

The worksheets authorized by the Act not only specifically reference the HFOA, but also assign a numerical reference number to the total number of prior felony convictions a defendant being sentenced under the Act has obtained. "`The well settled principle is that the last expression of the legislative will is the law in case of conflicting provisions of the statute on the same subject, and the last enacted in point of time prevails.'" Ex parte McCormick, 932 So.2d 124, 139 (Ala.2005), quoting Middleton v. General Water Works & Electric Corporation, 25 Ala.App. 455, 456, 149 So. 351, 352 (1933).

Also, the Alabama Sentencing Commission's publication entitled "Initial Voluntary Sentencing Standards and Worksheets" contains a section of frequently asked questions. Question number 16 states: "How do you decide if an offender is sentenced under the standards or the Habitual Felony Offender Act?" The answer states: "This is a matter of judicial discretion. Additionally, the [district attorney] may make a recommendation as to which should be applied."

"[I]n interpreting a statute, a court accepts an administrative interpretation of the statute by the agency charged with its administration, if that interpretation is reasonable.... Absent a compelling reason not to do so, a court will give great weight to an agency's interpretations of a statute and will consider them persuasive."

State v. Pettaway, 794 So.2d 1153, 1157 (Ala.Civ.App.2001).

Though there are few cases addressing the Act, the Alabama Supreme Court in State v. Jones, 13 So.3d 915 (Ala. 2008), recently considered a mandamus petition filed by the State after a trial judge suspended the confinement portion of the split sentence he had imposed on...

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