State v. Muniz

Decision Date09 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 26,583.,26,583.
Citation134 N.M. 152,74 P.3d 86,2003 NMSC 21
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Richard MUNIZ, Defendant-Petitioner.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

John Bigelow, Chief Public Defender, Jennifer R. Albright, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellant.

Patricia Madrid, Attorney General, Steven S Suttle, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellee.

OPINION

MAES, Chief Justice.

{1} While a juvenile, Defendant was charged with first degree murder and several other crimes. After he pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence, the district court sentenced him to two consecutive 18-month prison terms. The Court of Appeals reversed the sentence, holding that the district court did not have jurisdiction to impose an adult sentence, and remanded the case to the district court, instructing Defendant that he could either waive his right to receive a juvenile disposition or allow the district court to nullify his guilty plea. State v. Muniz, 2000-NMCA-089, 129 N.M. 649, 11 P.3d 613. Defendant appealed the judgment to this Court, arguing that he has the right to receive a juvenile disposition on remand. We do not reach the issues raised by Defendant, however, because we hold that the district court had authority to sentence Defendant as an adult. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and affirm the sentence imposed by the district court.

FACTS

{2} At age 17, Defendant was indicted on one count of first degree murder, four counts of tampering with evidence, and conspiracy to tamper with evidence. Because Defendant faced a charge of first degree murder, the district court obtained jurisdiction to try Defendant according to the procedural rules and sentencing guidelines applicable to adults. See NMSA 1978, § 32A-2-3(H) (1996); NMSA 1978, § 31-18-15.3 (1993). The district court also had jurisdiction to hear the additional, related charges pending against Defendant. See State v. Montano, 120 N.M. 218, 219, 900 P.2d 967, 968 (Ct.App. 1995). Defendant reached a plea agreement with the State, agreeing to plead guilty to one charge of tampering with evidence and one count of conspiracy to tamper with evidence and to testify against his two co-defendants. In exchange, the State agreed to drop all remaining charges, including the charge of first degree murder.

{3} Defendant entered his plea before the district court in April 1997. Defendant's sentencing, however, was delayed until May 1998. At the sentencing hearing, Defendant argued that he could not be sentenced as an adult for the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty. The State, on the other hand, argued that once the district court, rather than the children's court, obtained jurisdiction over the case, it retained both jurisdiction over the case and the authority to impose an adult sentence throughout the proceedings, even after the first degree murder charge had been dropped. The district court agreed with the State and imposed consecutive 18-month sentences in the adult penal system for each fourth degree felony, for a total of three years.

{4} When Defendant appealed his sentence to the Court of Appeals, the State reversed its position, conceding that the district court did not have authority to sentence Defendant as an adult, but arguing that Defendant had waived his right to appeal. The Court of Appeals reversed the sentence, holding that the district court did not have statutory authority to impose an adult sentence and that Defendant had not waived his right to appeal. Muniz, 2000-NMCA-089, ¶¶ 14, 17-18, 129 N.M. 649, 11 P.3d 613. The Court remanded the case to the district court and gave Defendant two options: he could either accept the adult sentence by waiving his right to a juvenile disposition, or the district court could declare his plea agreement null and void, allowing the State, if it chose, to proceed with the charges that had previously been dropped, including the charge of first degree murder. Id. ¶ 19. Defendant raised one issue in his writ of certiorari: whether the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that he could waive his right to a juvenile disposition. In his briefs to this Court, Defendant also argues that there is no basis to nullify the plea agreement.

DISCUSSION

{5} Before we address the issues raised by Defendant, we believe we must first determine whether the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that the district court had no statutory authority to impose an adult sentence on Defendant. The Court of Appeals analyzed that issue even though the State had conceded that the district court had no authority to impose an adult sentence, explaining that it was not bound by the State's concession. Muniz, 2000-NMCA-089, ¶¶ 8-14, 129 N.M. 649, 11 P.3d 613. We similarly do not feel bound by the State's concession. See State v. Foster, 1999-NMSC-007, ¶ 25, 126 N.M. 646, 974 P.2d 140. We believe we have the power to consider this issue even though it is outside the scope of the issue raised in Defendant's petition for certiorari. See, e.g., Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 247 n. 12, 102 S.Ct. 252, 70 L.Ed.2d 419 (1981) ("We may consider questions outside the scope of the limited order when resolution of those questions is necessary for the proper disposition of the case."). Indeed, we believe we have a duty to consider this issue, because we must affirm the district court if its decision was correct. Cf. State v. Beachum, 83 N.M. 526, 527, 494 P.2d 188, 189 (Ct.App.1972) (holding that a trial court's judgment will be upheld if it is right for any reason). We also have a duty to interpret statutes in accordance with the intent of the Legislature. See State v. Martinez, 1998-NMSC-023, ¶ 8, 126 N.M. 39, 966 P.2d 747 ("Our primary goal in interpreting a statute is to give effect to the Legislature's intent."). Therefore, we must decide whether the district court had jurisdiction to impose an adult sentence rather than limiting our review to the issue raised in the petition for certiorari.

{6} The Children's Code establishes three classes of juvenile offenders: serious youthful offenders, youthful offenders, and delinquent offenders. See §§ 32A-2-3(C), (H), (I). These classifications determine the procedures for adjudicating children accused of committing crimes, as well as the consequences upon a determination of guilt. Children between the ages of fifteen and eighteen accused of committing first degree murder are classified as "serious youthful offenders." See § 32A-2-3(H). Serious youthful offenders are tried in district court rather than children's court and, if convicted of first degree murder, face adult sentences. See § 31-18-15.3(D). Children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen who commit certain other designated crimes, such as criminal sexual penetration, are classified as "youthful offenders." See § 32A-2-3(I). For those children, the children's court must determine whether the child is "amenable to treatment or rehabilitation as a child in available facilities."1 See NMSA 1978, § 32A-2-20(B)(1) (1996). If so, then the child is subject to one of the juvenile dispositions established in NMSA 1978, § 32A-2-19 (1996). See § 32A-2-20(E). If the children's court determines that the child is not amenable to treatment or rehabilitation, then the children's court may impose an adult sentence. See § 32A-2-20(A) & (B). Fourteen-year-old children who are found guilty of first degree murder are also designated youthful offenders. See § 32A-2-3(I)(3). Children who commit other, non-designated crimes are classified as "delinquent offenders," see § 32A-2-3(C), and are subject to juvenile dispositions only. See § 32A-2-19. For those children, the children's court has no jurisdiction to impose an adult sentence. See id.

{7} When Defendant was indicted for first degree murder and bound over for trial, he was classified as a serious youthful offender, and his case was assigned to district court. The question of how to treat Defendant for sentencing purposes arose when the State agreed to drop the charge of first degree murder in its plea agreement with Defendant. Defendant argued that he could not be sentenced as an adult under the provisions of Section 32A-2-20 because the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty—tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence—are not among the crimes enumerated in Section 32A-2-3(I). Defendant therefore argued that he should be treated as an adjudicated delinquent in accordance with the provisions of Section 32A-2-19. In response, the State argued that the district court maintained its jurisdiction over Defendant and its ability to impose an adult sentence. In making this argument to the district court, the State did not cite any specific authority as directly supporting this proposition.

{8} In its brief submitted to the Court of Appeals, the State changed its position and conceded that the district court had no authority to impose an adult sentence. When the Court of Appeals held its oral arguments, the judges asked counsel for the State whether Section 32A-2-20(F) (1996) gave the district court authority to impose an adult sentence. Section 32A-2-20(F) provides that "[a] fourteen to eighteen year old child charged with first degree murder, but convicted of an offense less than first degree murder, is subject to the dispositions set forth in this section." The State took the position that Section 32A-2-20(F) did not authorize district courts to impose adult sentences in every case in which a child has originally been charged with first degree murder. Muniz, 2000-NMCA-089, ¶ 13.

{9} Despite the State's concession, the Court of Appeals conducted its own examination of the statutory language, concluding that the language was ambiguous. Id. Although the Court of Appeals did not fully determine the statute's meaning, it concluded that the statute was not intended to grant district...

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