State v. Knybel, 17650.

Decision Date20 March 2007
Docket NumberNo. 17650.,17650.
Citation916 A.2d 816,281 Conn. 707
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Michael KNYBEL, Jr.

William J. O'Sullivan, with whom, on the brief, was Shannon Tracy Bergquist, Wethersfield, for the appellant (defendant).

Jessica Probolus, special deputy assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were James E. Thomas, state's attorney, and Lisa Herskowitz, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (state).

BORDEN, KATZ, PALMER, VERTEFEUILLE and ZARELLA, Js.

ZARELLA, J.

The defendant, Michael Knybel, Jr., appeals from the judgment of the trial court revoking his probation imposed in connection with a previous conviction. The defendant claims that the trial court improperly revoked his probation under General Statutes § 53a-32.1 The defendant's claim is twofold. First the defendant contends that the court improperly determined that he had violated the general condition of his probation, namely, that he not violate the laws of the state, by operating a motor vehicle while his operator's license was under suspension in violation of General Statutes § 14-215(c),2 because the statute is unconstitutionally vague as it applies to the use of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Second, the defendant contends that the special condition of his probation barring him from operating a motor vehicle while his license was under suspension did not adequately apprise him that a motor vehicle included an ATV and, therefore, was unconstitutionally vague.3 We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The following undisputed facts and procedural history are relevant to the resolution of this appeal. On July 27, 2001, the defendant pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of liquor or drugs or both, as a third time offender, in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 2001) § 14-227a,4 and operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended in violation of § 14-215(c). On September 13, 2001, the defendant was sentenced to three years imprisonment, suspended after one year, and three years probation. The terms of the defendant's probation included a general condition prohibiting him from violating any criminal law of the state and a special condition prohibiting him from operating a motor vehicle while his license was under suspension. The defendant's license, which had been suspended on several previous occasions, was permanently suspended by the department of motor vehicles on October 17, 2001. On September 11, 2002, after serving one year of his sentence, the defendant was released from prison, and his probation commenced.

On May 15, 2004, the defendant operated an ATV in the travel lanes of various roads in the towns of Union and Stafford.5 A conservation officer with the department of environmental protection stopped the defendant while he was operating his ATV and issued him citations for operating an unregistered ATV in violation of General Statutes § 14-380,6 and for operating an ATV on a public highway in violation of General Statutes § 14-387(1).7 Thereafter the defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while his license was under suspension in violation of § 14-215(c), and with a violation of his probation under § 53a-32.

On June 14, 2005, after a hearing, the trial court determined that the defendant had violated the general terms of his probation when he operated his ATV on a public highway in violation of § 14-215(c), which makes it a criminal offense for a person to operate a motor vehicle while his license is under suspension. The court also determined that the defendant had violated the special condition of his probation that he not operate a motor vehicle while his license was under suspension. As a result, the trial court rendered judgment revoking the defendant's probation and ordering him to serve the remaining two years of his suspended sentence. The defendant appealed to the Appellate Court from the trial court's judgment, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199(c) and Practice Book § 65-1.

I

We first address the defendant's claim that the trial court improperly revoked his probation after finding that he had violated the general condition of his probation that he not violate the laws of the state. Specifically, the defendant claims that § 14-215(c), which proscribes the operation of a motor vehicle while a person's license is suspended, is unconstitutionally vague as it applies to the use of an ATV. The defendant contends that, in view of the inconsistent definitions of the term "motor vehicle" within the General Statutes, a person of ordinary intelligence could not reasonably have been expected to know that the term "motor vehicle" included an ATV. We disagree.

We begin our analysis with the applicable standard of review for a claim of unconstitutional vagueness. At the outset, we note that the defendant concedes that the issues that he raises on appeal are unpreserved but urges that he should prevail under the plain error doctrine.8 See Practice Book § 60-5. Alternatively, the defendant argues that he should prevail under State v. Golding, 213 Conn. 233, 567 A.2d 823 (1989). Under Golding, "a defendant can prevail on a claim of constitutional error not preserved at trial only if all of the following conditions are met: (1) the record is adequate to review the alleged claim of error; (2) the claim is of constitutional magnitude alleging the violation of a fundamental right; (3) the alleged constitutional violation clearly exists and clearly deprived the defendant of a fair trial; and (4) if subject to harmless error analysis, the state has failed to demonstrate harmlessness of the alleged constitutional violation beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 239-40, 567 A.2d 823. In the present case, the record is adequate for review and the claims are of constitutional magnitude. We conclude, however, that the third prong of Golding has not been satisfied because the defendant has failed to establish that the alleged constitutional violation clearly exists and clearly deprived him of a fair trial.

Turning to the specifics of the defendant's claim, we note that, although our review of a trial court's finding that a particular condition of probation was violated would require us to apply a clearly erroneous standard of review, determining whether that condition is unconstitutionally vague presents a question of law over which our review is de novo. See, e.g., State v. Faraday, 268 Conn. 174, 191, 842 A.2d 567 (2004). Our analysis first requires us to restate the common-law rule that everyone is presumed to know the law and that ignorance of the law excuses no one from criminal sanction. See, e.g., Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 199, 111 S.Ct. 604, 112 L.Ed.2d 617 (1991); Covelli v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, 235 Conn. 539, 551 n. 21, 668 A.2d 699 (1995), vacated on other grounds sub nom. Covelli v. Crystal, 518 U.S. 1031, 116 S.Ct. 2577, 135 L.Ed.2d 1092 (1996). In reviewing a claim that a statute or a condition of probation is unconstitutionally vague, we also must be mindful of the following principles. Our law requires that "a penal statute define [a] criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. . . . [This concept] embodies two central precepts: the right to fair warning of the effect of a governing statute or regulation and the guarantee against standardless law enforcement. . . . [T]he [most] important aspect of the vagueness doctrine is not actual notice . . . but . . . the requirement that a legislature establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement. . . . Thus, [i]n order to surmount a vagueness challenge, a statute [must] afford a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is permitted or prohibited . . . and must not impermissibly [delegate] basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application. . . . Finally, [i]f the meaning of a statute can be fairly ascertained a statute will not be void for vagueness . . . for [i]n most English words and phrases there lurk uncertainties. . . . [T]he statute must contain some core meaning within which the defendant's actions clearly fall. . . . References to judicial opinions involving the statute, the common law, legal dictionaries, or treatises may be necessary to ascertain a statute's meaning to determine if it gives fair warning." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. McMahon, 257 Conn. 544, 551-53, 778 A.2d 847 (2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1130, 122 S. Ct. 1069, 151 L. Ed. 2d 972 (2002).

"For statutes that do not implicate the especially sensitive concerns embodied in the first amendment, we determine the constitutionality of a statute under attack for vagueness by considering its applicability to the particular facts at issue." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Jones, 215 Conn. 173, 180, 575 A.2d 216 (1990). Furthermore, to prevail on his claim, the defendant "must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute, as applied to him, deprived him of adequate notice of what conduct the statute proscribed or that he fell victim to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." State v. Hopkins, 62 Conn. App. 665, 675-76, 772 A.2d 657 (2001), citing Sweetman v. State Elections Enforcement Commission, 249 Conn. 296, 322, 732 A.2d 144 (1999).

In the present case, the defendant claims that § 14-215(c) is unconstitutionally vague because it did not reasonably apprise him that operating an ATV constituted operating a motor vehicle for purposes of the statute. Specifically, the defendant claims that § 14-215 is vague...

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