State v. Mejia

Decision Date22 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 121,475,121,475
Citation466 P.3d 1217
Parties STATE of Kansas, Appellant, v. Michael Vincent MEJIA, Appellee.
CourtKansas Court of Appeals

Jacob M. Gontesky, assistant district attorney, Stephen M. Howe, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellant.

Danielle Hamilton Slate, public defender, and Michelle Durrett, deputy public defender, of Olathe, for appellee.

Before Malone, P.J., Atcheson and Schroeder, JJ.

Atcheson, J.:

The State charged Defendant Michael Vincent Mejia with driving under the influence, a violation of K.S.A. 8-1567, and relied on three Missouri convictions to elevate the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony. The Johnson County District Court declined to bind Mejia over at the preliminary hearing because his Missouri convictions were based on a statute that proscribed a broader range of conduct than K.S.A. 8-1567. The State has appealed.

We reverse and remand with directions to the district court to reinstate the felony DUI charge against Mejia. The Kansas Legislature has amended K.S.A. 8-1567 to permit charging and sentencing enhancements for DUIs based on out-of-state convictions under statutes that are comparable to Kansas law—meaning "similar to" rather than the same as or narrower than Kansas law. The amendment applies in this case. The relevant Missouri statute, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.010, is similar to K.S.A. 8-1567, so Mejia's convictions support the felony charge, consistent with the legislative policy behind the escalating punishment of recidivist drunk drivers. Intoxicated drivers pose an indisputably serious and, indeed, often lethal danger to the motoring public.


The factual circumstances of Mejia's arrest in October 2018 are irrelevant to the issue before us. The State initially charged Mejia with a misdemeanor DUI and later filed an amended complaint elevating the charge to a fourth offense and, thus, a felony under K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 8-1567. The State identified three convictions Mejia had for violating Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.010 that proscribes "driving while intoxicated" as the basis for the felony charge.

Mejia filed a motion challenging the use of his Missouri convictions to elevate the DUI charge to a felony. After further briefing, the district court filed a seven-page journal entry finding that the State could not rely on the Missouri convictions under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.010 because that statute proscribed a broader range of conduct than K.S.A. 8-1567. In reaching that conclusion, the district court relied, in part, on State v. Wetrich , 307 Kan. 552, 412 P.3d 984 (2018), that held out-of-state convictions used in establishing defendants' criminal histories under the Kansas Criminal Code had to prohibit the same or a narrower range of conduct to be comparable to a Kansas crime. The district court also held that Apprendi v. New Jersey , 530 U.S. 466, 120 S. Ct. 2348, 147 L. Ed. 2d 435 (2000), and its application in Alleyne v. United States , 570 U.S. 99, 133 S. Ct. 2151, 186 L. Ed. 2d 314 (2013), and State v. Dickey , 301 Kan. 1018, 350 P.3d 1054 (2015), limited its review to a comparison of the statutory elements of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 577.010 and K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 8-1567 without considering the facts underlying Mejia's Missouri convictions. The ruling, issued in early May 2019, did not grant Mejia any specific relief and simply outlined the district court's view on how his Missouri convictions should be treated.

The district court held a preliminary hearing about three weeks later. The State had also charged Mejia with driving while suspended under K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 8-262 and felony evading or attempting to elude a police officer under K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 8-1568. Adhering to its earlier written ruling, the district court declined to bind Mejia over for trial on the felony DUI charge. The district court found probable cause to hold Mejia for trial on the other felony and set the driving while suspended charge for trial. Shortly after the district court's ruling at the preliminary hearing, the State dismissed both of those charges without prejudice. The State has appealed the district court's rejection of the felony DUI charge.

A. Legal Basis for State's Appeal; Standard of Review

Before turning to the principal issue, we dispose of Mejia's argument that the State has improperly appealed the district court's ruling. In a criminal case, the State may appeal adverse rulings only in specific statutorily identified circumstances. A district court's dismissal of a complaint is one of them. K.S.A. 2019 Supp. 22-3602(b)(1). Here, the district court effectively dismissed the complaint against Mejia for felony DUI when it refused to bind him over for trial on that charge. The district court then granted the State's motion to dismiss without prejudice the remaining charges against Mejia. Taken in tandem, the district court's refusal to hold Mejia on the felony DUI charge and its order of dismissal of the other charges brought the State within the scope of K.S.A. 2019 Supp. 22-3602(b)(1). See State v. Phelps , 266 Kan. 185, 194, 967 P.2d 304 (1998) ; State v. Freeman , 234 Kan. 278, 282, 670 P.2d 1365 (1983). The State, therefore, has properly appealed the district court's dismissal of the felony DUI charge.

The State's use of Mejia's Missouri convictions as predicate offenses under K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 8-1567 does not rest on the district court's resolution of conflicting testimony or other disputed facts. Rather, we must construe the Kansas and Missouri statutes governing drunk driving in light of established legal principles and a few settled facts. The task presents only questions of law we may answer without deference to the district court. State v. Turner , 293 Kan. 1085, 1086, 272 P.3d 19 (2012) (statutory construction presents question of law subject to unlimited review on appeal); State v. Bennett , 51 Kan. App. 2d 356, 361, 347 P.3d 229 (2015) (when material facts undisputed, issue presents question of law).

B. Misplaced Reliance on Wetrich as Controlling Authority

We now take up the propriety of the district court's decision. The basic flaw in Mejia's argument and, in turn, the district court's ruling lies in the assumption that Wetrich governs. The Wetrich decision sets a standard for determining the comparability of out-of-state criminal convictions to Kansas crimes for purposes of computing defendants' criminal histories for sentencing under the Kansas Criminal Code. That is a broad function applicable to hundreds of crimes defined in Chapter 21.

But the Kansas Supreme Court has recognized that K.S.A. 8-1567, outlawing driving under the influence, is distinct from Chapter 21—it reposes in Chapter 8—and should be treated as an essentially self-contained proscriptive and punitive statute. State v. Reese , 300 Kan. 650, 654, 333 P.3d 149 (2014) ("Kansas' DUI law is a self-contained criminal statute, which means that all essential components of the crime, including the elements, severity levels, and applicable sentences, are included within the statute."). In other words, what's required or good for Chapter 21 isn't necessarily so for K.S.A. 8-1567. As the Reese court explained: "Given that the DUI statute provides its own sentencing provisions, cases relating to the proper application of the [revised] Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act (KSGA) are of minimal precedential value." 300 Kan. at 654, 333 P.3d 149. By its own pronouncement, then, the Kansas Supreme Court should not construe Wetrich to be controlling authority for K.S.A. 8-1567 and ought to treat it as advisory guidance to the extent it might be analogous.

C. Wetrich Inapposite as Analogous Authority

As we explain, the analogy between comparing out-of-state convictions for criminal history purposes under Chapter 21 generally, on the one hand, and the particularized use of out-of-state convictions for impaired driving offenses in making charging and sentencing decisions under K.S.A. 8-1567, on the other, is not an especially tight one. Moreover, after Wetrich and before Mejia's arrest, the Kansas Legislature amended K.S.A. 8-1567 to ward off the application of Wetrich . See L. 2018, ch. 106, § 13. Again, as we explain, the legislative intent behind the amendment is quite apparent, although the way it functions in practice isn't as clear.

1. Issue and Holding in Wetrich

We first look at the Chapter 21 sentencing issue decided in Wetrich . There, Wetrich faced sentencing on multiple felonies in Johnson County District Court. Under the sentencing guidelines, Wetrich's presumptive prison terms for those felonies depended, in part, on his criminal history that included a Missouri burglary conviction. The legal dispute focused on how that Missouri conviction should be scored in determining Wetrich's criminal history.

Under K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-6811(e)(2)(A) and (3), an out-of-state felony conviction should be classified as a person felony if the "comparable" Kansas crime were designated a person offense. If there were no comparable Kansas crime, the out-of-state felony conviction should be classified as a nonperson felony. Person felonies have a markedly greater impact on a defendant's criminal history score and the resulting presumptive term of imprisonment than do nonperson felonies. Before the Kansas Supreme Court decided Wetrich , the district courts and the Court of Appeals construed the statutory term "comparable" to mean "similar to," so an out-of-state conviction for a crime that generally replicated a Kansas crime would be classified as a person or nonperson offense consistent with the Kansas crime. In some instances, the out-of-state statute might criminalize a broader range of conduct than the Kansas criminal statute. See, e.g., State v. Moore , 52 Kan. App. 2d 799, 813-14, 377 P.3d 1162 (2016) (citing State v. Williams , 299 Kan. 870, 873, 326 P.3d 1070 [2014] ).

The Wetrich court found the word "comparable" as used in K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-6811(e)(3) to be ambiguous in...

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    ...390 P.3d 40.Thus, as Stanley clearly resolved, the elements of Missouri DWI are broader than Kansas DUI. See State v. Mejia , 58 Kan. App. 2d 229, 241, 466 P.3d 1217 (2020) (presuming Missouri DWI statute broader than Kansas DUI statute.The State reasons that even if the elements of Missour......
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