Juveniles Cannot be Sentenced to Life Without Parole (but may be Sentenced to Life With)

State v. Tran (ICA July 14, 2016)
Background. Dat Minh Tran was seventeen years old in a car with his friends when they were involved in a chase through Waikiki with a red truck. Tran stood up from the truck and fired two shots at the red truck while standing in his car through the sunroof. He shot one of the people in the truck, but that person did not die. The second shot hit the truck’s radiator. The family court waived jurisdiction and he was tried as an adult for attempted murder in the first degree. He was found guilty. The circuit court sentenced Tran to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. That was in 1997.

In the wake of three cases from the United States Supreme Court related to the sentencing of juveniles, Tran filed a petition to set aside his sentence. The petition was granted. After a hearing on the petition, the circuit court sentenced Tran to life with the possibility of parole. Tran appealed. Later, the Legislature amended the murder sentencing statute and prohibited courts from sentencing defendants to life without parole when the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the offense.

The Juvenile Sentencing “Trilogy” from SCOTUS. The ICA examined the three SCOTUS cases that set the backdrop for Tran’s petition and appeal. First, there’s Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005), in which the high court held that sentencing offenders to death who were under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense was in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. The court held that unlike adults, juvenile offenders “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders” and there was no constitutional justification for the death penalty in juvenile cases. Id. at 569-573. The SCOTUS looked into the matter further in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). The court held that imposing a sentence of life without parole on juvenile offenders who did not commit homicide violated the Eighth Amendment. Id. at 69-70. Finally, the other shoe dropped in Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), when the court extended the Graham prohibition and held that juveniles who did commit homicide cannot be sentenced to life without parole.

The Severability Test . . . The problem for the circuit court was how to sentence Tran after the SCOTUS declared sentences like his unconstitutional, but before the Legislature amended the statute. Tran argued that the entire statutory scheme is unconstitutional. However, there is a presumption that an entire statutory scheme is not constitutional and that only the offending portion is invalid. Ruggles v. Yagong, 135 Hawaii 411, 431, 353 P.3d 953, 973 (2015). This presumption can be overcome when something in the statute or history makes “it evident that [the Legislature], faced with the limitations imposed by the Constitution, would have preferred no statute at all to a statute with the invalid part excised.” Hamad v. Gates, 732 F.3d 990, 1001 (9th Cir. 2013). Parts that remain in the statute are (1) constitutionally valid; (2) capable of functioning independently, and (3) consistent with the Legislature’s basic objectives in enacting the statute. Id.

The Entire Sentencing Scheme is NOT Unconstitutional. The ICA held that the presumption of validity prevailed. The unconstitutional portion had been properly excised and Tran’s sentence was consistent with the new holdings of the SCOTUS. Moreover, the Legislature’s amendment shows precisely that it intended to preserve the rest of the statutory scheme.


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