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September 15, 2004

Big Blakely rulings from the states

Federal courts have been relatively quiet on the Blakely front this week (perhaps because, as suggested here, federal judges are so busy sorting through piles of clerkship applications). But the state courts have been keeping Blakely busy; at least three consequential ruling from courts in California, Minnesota and Tennessee appeared on-line today:

From California, the court in People v. George, 2004 WL 2051167 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. Sept. 15, 2004), held that Blakely precluded the imposition of an upper term sentence, and rejected the government's claims that the defendant has waived the issue and that any Blakely error was harmless. Here's some key language:

[B]ecause Blakely was decided after George's sentencing, George cannot be said to have knowingly and intelligently waived his right to a jury trial....

Under California's determinate sentencing law, where a penal statute provides for three possible prison terms for a particular offense, the court is required to impose the middle term unless it finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the circumstances in aggravation outweigh the circumstances in mitigation. The Attorney General argues that the imposition of an upper term sentence under the California determinate sentencing scheme is not the same as the imposition of a penalty beyond the standard range and thus does not implicate Blakely. The attempted distinction, however, is one without a difference. Although an upper term is a "statutory maximum" penalty in the sense that it is the highest sentence a court can impose for a particular crime, it is not necessarily the "maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant," which is the relevant standard for purposes of applying Blakely....

Here, the trial court relied on five aggravating factors as the basis for its decision to impose the upper term, to wit, that (1) the crime was serious and involved threats of great bodily injury to the victims; (2) the crime involved planning, sophistication and professionalism; (3) the current offense was more serious than the offense underlying George's prior conviction, which was itself serious; (4) at the time George committed the current offenses, he was on felony probation; and (5) George's prior performance on probation was poor.... [W]e conclude that the trial court was constitutionally entitled to rely only on the fact that George was on probation at the time of the charged offense as a basis for imposing an upper term sentence. Because this fact arises out of the fact of a prior conviction and is so essentially analogous to the fact of a prior conviction, we conclude that constitutional considerations do not require that matter to be tried to a jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.... Thus, in accordance with the analysis of Blakely, the trial court was not required to afford George the right to a jury trial before relying on his status as a probationer at the time of the current offense as an aggravating factor supporting the imposition of the upper term.

The Attorney General suggests that the propriety of this single factor as a basis for imposing an upper term sentence is sufficient to withstand George's constitutional challenge to the sentence.... [But] we cannot conclude that the elimination of four of the cited factors would not have made a difference in the court's sentencing decision here.... The matter is remanded for resentencing.

From Minnesota, the court in Minnesota v. Ingalls, 2004 WL 2050533 (Minn. App. Sept. 14, 2004), reserves the imposition of a "double-upward departure imposed by the district court." The court's ruling gets right to the point: "Like the sentencing departure in Blakely, the upward departure in this case is not based solely on facts reflected in a jury verdict or admitted by appellant; it is based on the district court's determination that aggravating factors were proved. Because the district court could not have considered whether basing appellant's sentence on these factors is permissible under Blakely, we remand for reconsideration of appellant's sentence in light of Blakely."

From Tennessee, the court in State v. Syler, 2004 WL 2039809 (Tenn. Crim. App. Sept. 13, 2004), explains that, though Blakely was "not raised by either party, we are constrained to address the Defendant's sentence in light of Blakely." And the impact is consequential:

The Blakely decision calls into question the validity of Tennessee's sentencing scheme, insofar as that scheme permits trial courts to increase a defendant's presumptive sentence based upon enhancement factors found by the trial judge.... The presumptive sentence for a standard offender convicted of a Class A felony is twenty years.... Here, the Defendant was sentenced to twenty-one years for each of his Class A felonies, one year above the presumptive sentence, based upon several enhancement and mitigating factors found by the trial court at the sentencing hearing....

The trial court enhanced the Defendant's sentences for the Class A felonies on the bases that the victim was "particularly vulnerable because of age or physical or mental disability," and the Defendant "abused a position of public or private trust." Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-114(5), (16). Neither of these enhancement factors is reflected in the jury's verdict, nor was either factor admitted by the Defendant. Pursuant to Blakely, the trial court's enhancement of the Defendant's sentences on these bases was therefore erroneous. See State v. Michael Wayne Poe, No. E2003-00417-CCA-R3-CD, 2004 WL 1607002, at *10 (Tenn.Crim.App., Knoxville, July 19, 2004) (holding that the rule in Blakely precludes application of enhancement factors (5) and (16) where they have not been submitted to the jury and have not been admitted by the defendant).

Pursuant to Blakely, the Defendant's sentences for his Class A felonies should not have been increased above the statutory presumptive sentence based upon statutory enhancement factors (5) and (16). Accordingly, we reduce the Defendant's sentences for his two Class A felonies from twenty-one years to twenty years.

September 15, 2004 at 10:06 PM | Permalink

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