Thursday, June 27, 2013

Youthful Offender Statute Trumps Sentencing Under Meth Trafficking

State v. Casugay-Badiang (HSC June 19, 2013)
Background. Rubin Ikoa Casugay-Badiang pleaded guilty to two counts of methamphetamine trafficking in the second degree, class B felonies. HRS § 712-1240.8. Each count carried a penalty of an indeterminate term of ten years prison, a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of one to four years, and a fine up to $10,000. At sentencing, the parties agreed that because he had no prior arrests or convictions and because he was a young adult defendant pursuant to HRS § 706-667, Casugay-Badiang should face only the one-year mandatory minimum term. The circuit court disagreed and raised the issue as to whether it had the discretion to sentence without a mandatory minimum based on language in the young-adult-defendant statute. Under the young-adult defender statute, the circuit court reduced the ten years to five and imposed the one year of a mandatory minimum. The prosecution filed a motion to correct the illegal sentence on the grounds that the circuit court misinterpreted the statutes. At a hearing on the motion, Casugay-Badiang argued that the legislature intended the young-adult statute to “override” the meth trafficking statute and that the sentence was a legal one. The circuit court agreed and denied the motion.

Young Adults v. Meth Trafficking. “Notwithstanding sections 706-620, 706-640, 706-641, 706-660, 706-669, and any other law to the contrary, a person convicted of methamphetamine trafficking in the second degree shall be sentenced to an indeterminate term of imprisonment of ten years[.]” HRS § 712-1240.8. The question for the HSC was whether the young adult defendant statute, which affords discretion to the sentencing court in reducing the severity and term of the sentence, was among a “law to the contrary.”

The Ground Rules of Statutory Interpretation. The foremost obligation in interpreting statutes is “to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature, which is to be obtained primarily from the language contained in the statute itself.” State v. Valdivia, 95 Hawai'i 465, 472, 24 P.3d 661, 668 (2003). “Where the statutory language is unambiguous, the court’s sole duty is to give effect to its plain and obvious meaning.” State v. Sakamoto, 101 Hawai'i 409, 412, 70 P.3d 635, 638 (2003).

Two Different “Plain Meaning” Readings of the Same Statute!? The HSC focused on this key phrase in the meth trafficking statute and noted that it has interpreted this phrase found throughout the HRS. Generally, the HSC has held that that phrase meant that removed the sentencing court’s discretion from applying any other law other than the one contained in that statute. See State v. Rice, 66 Haw. 101, 657 P.2d 1026 (1983); State v. Dannenberg, 74 Haw. 75, 837 P.2d 776 (1992); State v. Smith, 103 Hawai'i 228, 234, 81 P.3d 408, 414 (2003); State v. Kamano, 118 Hawai'i 210, 218, 188 P.3d 724, 732 (2008). Specifically, the word “contrary” means the “opposite to or in conflict with each other[.]” State v. Schnabel, 127 Hawai'i 432, 448, 279 P.3d 1237, 1253 (2012). And so a plain-language reading of the statute would signify that any statute that was the opposite of the statute with the NAOLTTC phrase would be inapplicable. And so, it would seem that a plain-reading analysis alone would mean that the circuit court erred in denying the prosecution’s motion.

. . . On the Other Hand. Then again, there was an argument that an equally plain reading of the trafficking statute would allow the circuit court to apply the young adult defendant statute. The trafficking offense enumerates five distinct statutes and a catchall in the notwithstanding phrase. That, according to the HSC, was evidence that the legislature did not intend to exclude the young-adult statute as a sentencing alternative.

And of course there was State v. Lau, 73 Haw. 259, 831 P.2d 523 (1992). There, the HSC examined the sentence to a twenty-year prison term for cocaine trafficking. Lau argued that because the sentencing court failed to explain why he got the deuce; in support of his argument, Lau noted that there was no way to show that the sentencing court even considered the young adult statute. Id. at 260-61, 831 P.2d at 523-24. The HSC disposed of the argument by noting that there was a presentence investigation report and arguments of counsel, which referred to the ordinary twenty-year term as well as the reduced one. Id. at 260, 831 P.2d at 523.

From Lau, the HSC noted that the cocaine trafficking statute had a similar “notwithstanding” clause. That implied that the sentencing court was still free to consider the reduced term under the young-adult statute. In fact, the HSC held that “[o]nce the court determines that imprisonment is necessary, the court is free to . . . choose between the ordinary term or the special indeterminate sentence under the young adult defendants statute.” Id. at 263, 831 P.2d at 525. That, according to the HSC, created “tension” between the competing interpretations and case law.

Resolving the Dueling Interpretations in Favor of the Defendant. The HSC did a similar analysis with the young adult defendant statute. In the end, the HSC conceded that there were strong arguments for both sides. But “where a criminal statute is ambiguous, it is to be interpreted according to the rule of lenity. Under the rule of lenity, the statute must be strictly construed against the government and in favor of the accused.” State v. Bayly, 118 Hawaii 1, 15, 185 P.3d 186, 200 (2008). And so, the HSC held that the young adult statute trumped the meth trafficking statute thereby affording the sentencing court the discretion to drop the ten-year term to five.

Chief Justice Recktenwald’s Dissent. The CJ wrote that there was no need for the strenuous debate and analysis. The meth trafficking statute clearly and succinctly stated that the defendant “shall be sentenced” pursuant to that particular statute “[n]otwithstanding . . . any other law to the contrary[.]” This would include the young adult statute. And although the CJ agrees that generally, the sentencing court has wide discretion in sentencing a defendant, the legislature clearly limited that discretion in this case. Justice Nakayama joined. 

1 comment:

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