State v. Rice

Decision Date28 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 85893–4.,85893–4.
Citation279 P.3d 849,174 Wash.2d 884
CourtWashington Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Jennifer Leigh RICE, Petitioner.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Rita Joan Griffith, Attorney at Law, James Elliot Lobsenz, Carney Badley Spellman, Seattle, WA, for Petitioner.

Thomas Charles Roberts, Kathleen Proctor, Pierce County Prosecutor's Office, Tacoma, WA, for Respondent.

GONZÁLEZ, J.

[174 Wash.2d 888]¶ 1 Petitioner Jennifer Leigh Rice, a former public school teacher, molested one of her 10–year–old students. Her conduct was found to be predatory as charged in a special allegation under RCW 9.94A.836. She also abducted the same 10–year–old boy and was convicted of kidnapping with special allegations under RCW 9.94A.835 and .837 for sexual motivation and for having a victim under age 15. The special allegations increased her sentence.

¶ 2 Rice argues that her convictions should be overturned because the legislature made charging the above special allegations mandatory, in violation of the constitutional separation of powers doctrine. Rice argues that RCW 9.94A.835 is unconstitutional because it requires a prosecuting attorney to file a special allegation whenever there is sufficient evidence to support the allegation and that RCW 9.94A.836 and .837 are unconstitutional because each requires a prosecuting attorney to file a special allegation whenever there is sufficient evidence to support the allegationand so long as the allegation will not interfere with obtaining a conviction.

¶ 3 The Court of Appeals held that the charging statutes do not unduly limit prosecutorial discretion because even if a charging requirement is imposed, the prosecutor still must determine whether there is sufficient supporting evidence and whether the supplemental charge would interfere with obtaining a conviction. State v. Rice, 159 Wash.App. 545, 562–63, 246 P.3d 234 (2011).

¶ 4 We affirm, but on different grounds. We find that the challenged statutes are directory rather than mandatory. Although the statutes authorize special allegations and direct prosecuting attorneys to file them, the statutes do not attach any legal consequences to a prosecutor's noncompliance, and the legislature elsewhere in the same chapter has acknowledged that prosecuting attorneys retain broad charging discretion notwithstanding statutory language directing them to file particular charges.

¶ 5 Our interpretation also rests on the fact that the challenged statutes would be unconstitutional if they were mandatory. The charging discretion of prosecuting attorneys is an integral part of the constitutional checks and balances that make up our criminal justice system. Each branch of government plays a distinct role: the legislature checks prosecutors and the judiciary by defining the particular acts and circumstances that may warrant criminal punishment and the maximum sentences that may be imposed; prosecutors check the power of the legislature and the judiciary by deciding whom to charge and which available charges and special allegations to file in any given case; and the judiciary checks the legislature and prosecutors by reviewing probable cause, ensuring a fair trial, and determining the appropriate sentence if the defendant is found guilty. Additionally, the jury checks all three branches of government by deciding in any given case whether the defendant has been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Within this balanced constitutional framework, each branch must act in order for criminal punishment to be imposed, and each exercise of governmental authority may be tempered by mercy. Accordingly, the legislature cannot usurp the inherent charging discretion of prosecuting attorneys; as an executive officer, a prosecuting attorney necessarily has discretion to forgo a supplemental charge even if sufficient evidence exists and regardless of whether the charge would interfere with obtaining a conviction.

¶ 6 For these reasons, we are confident that the legislature intended RCW 9.94A.835, .836, and .837 to be directory, not mandatory. We uphold the statutes and thus affirm Rice's conviction and sentence.

I. FACTS

¶ 7 The parties stipulated to the facts in this case. Stipulated facts generally are binding on the parties and the court. Ross v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 132 Wash.2d 507, 523, 940 P.2d 252 (1997); State v. Wheaton, 121 Wash.2d 347, 363, 850 P.2d 507 (1993).

¶ 8 From December 1, 2006 until February 28, 2007, Rice was a fourth grade teacher at a public school in Tacoma, Washington. During that period, Rice had sexual contact with one of her 10–year–old students.

¶ 9 In July 2007, on two separate occasions, Rice had sexual intercourse with a 15–year–old boy.

¶ 10 In August 2007, Rice abducted a former student (the same 10–year–old boy with whom she had sexual contact as a teacher) from his home without the consent of his parents and for the purpose of her own sexual gratification. Rice drove the 10–year–old boy to a rest stop and molested him.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 11 On August 13, 2007, the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney charged Rice with one count of kidnapping in the first degree, including a special allegation of sexual motivationpursuant to former RCW 9.94A.835 (Laws of 2006, ch. 123, § 2), amended by Laws of 2009, ch. 28, § 15 (making insubstantial changes irrelevant to the issue presented here). On September 12, 2007, the prosecuting attorney filed an amended information charging 12 additional counts, including a count of child molestation in the first degree with a special allegation under RCW 9.94A.836 that the molestation was predatory.RCW 9.94A.030(38)(c)(i) (offense committed by a teacher against a student qualifies as predatory).

¶ 12 On May 16, 2008, Rice moved to dismiss the prosecutor's special allegation that the child molestation was predatory, arguing in part that RCW 9.94A.836 “violates the separation of powers doctrine by curtailing the prosecutor's charging discretion....” Clerk's Papers (CP) at 10. On August 1, 2008, the trial court rejected that argument, noting that the legislature has authority “to prescribe the duties of prosecuting attorneys” and also noting that under the statute prosecutors retain discretion to decide whether to charge the underlying crime, to assess whether there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the offense was predatory, and to evaluate whether such a supplemental charge would interfere with obtaining a conviction. CP at 47.

¶ 13 On April 20, 2009, the parties filed a stipulated agreement whereby Rice waived her right to a jury trial and stipulated to the facts described above. Rice also stipulated to a second amended information under which she was charged with (1) kidnapping in the first degree, with special allegations under RCW 9.94A.835 (sexual motivation) and RCW 9.94A.837 (victim under 15 years of age); (2) child molestation in the first degree, with a special allegation under RCW 9.94A.836 (offense was predatory); and (3) two counts of rape of a child in the third degree. The trial court accepted the stipulated agreement and found Rice guilty on all four counts, including the special allegations.

¶ 14 On July 24, 2009, Rice was sentenced. Under each of the enhanced counts—kidnapping and child molestation—Rice was sentenced as a sex offender to a mandatory minimum term of 25 years and a maximum term of life. Rice also was sentenced to 60 months of confinement for each count of rape of a child in the third degree, to be served concurrently.

¶ 15 Rice timely appealed her judgment and sentence, including the denial of her motion to dismiss. Before the Court of Appeals, Rice argued in part that RCW 9.94A.835, .836, and .837 all are mandatory charging statutes in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The Pierce County prosecuting attorney, on behalf of the State, argued that the legislature has the power to limit the authority of prosecuting attorneys. The Court of Appeals rejected Rice's argument, holding that the statutes do not unduly limit prosecutorial discretion because the prosecutor determines whether sufficient evidence exists and whether the supplemental charge would interfere with obtaining a conviction. Rice, 159 Wash.App. at 562–63, 246 P.3d 234.

¶ 16 Rice sought discretionary review of the separation of powers issue, Pet. for Review at 5, and we granted her petition, State v. Rice, 172 Wash.2d 1004, 258 P.3d 685 (2011). We have appellate jurisdiction under Const. art. IV, § 4 and RAP 13.3.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 17 Issues of statutory construction and constitutionality are questions of law subject to de novo review. State v. Bradshaw, 152 Wash.2d 528, 531, 98 P.3d 1190 (2004).

IV. ANALYSIS
A. Standing

¶ 18 Rice has standing to challenge the legality of her enhanced sentence and specifically to challenge RCW 9.94A.835, .836, and .837 as unconstitutional. Rice was charged and convicted under those statutes, and we regularlyconsider constitutional challenges to criminal statutes in the prosecutions brought under them,” State v. Ruff, 122 Wash.2d 731, 734, 861 P.2d 1063 (1993), including challenges based on the separation of powers doctrine, see State v. Chavez, 163 Wash.2d 262, 273–74, 180 P.3d 1250 (2008); State v. Wadsworth, 139 Wash.2d 724, 991 P.2d 80 (2000); State v. Ammons, 105 Wash.2d 175, 179–82, 713 P.2d 719, 718 P.2d 796 (1986). Rice has standing to argue that the statutes under which she was charged interfere with the constitutional charging discretion of prosecuting attorneys.

B. Scope of Review

¶ 19 The constitutionality of all three charging statutes is properly before us. Rice directly challenged RCW 9.94A.836 before the trial court and appealed the trial court's ruling on that issue. On appeal, based on the same constitutional argument rejected by the trial court, Rice then broadened her challenge to include all three charging statutes. We need not address the discrepancy because...

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