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State v. Blair

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

July 26, 2018

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
CHRISTOPHER JOHN BLAIR, Petitioner.

          JOHNSON, J.

         In this case we are asked to decide (1) whether a sentencing court may go behind the judgment and sentence and engage in statutory interpretation to determine the facial validity of a prior conviction for current sentencing purposes and (2) whether a snowmobile is a "motor vehicle" for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065. We conclude that the defendant must allege a constitutional defect on the face of a prior conviction to challenge that conviction's validity for purposes of offender score calculation in an otherwise unrelated proceeding. The trial court declined Blair's invitation to engage in statutory construction here and counted two prior convictions for taking a motor vehicle. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court, and we affirm.[1]

         Facts and Procedural History

         The State charged Christopher Blair in Spokane County Superior Court with one count of theft of a motor vehicle, a Ford truck, that Blair purportedly stole on or about October 28, 2011. Pursuant to that charge, he entered a drug court personal recovery program. Blair was terminated from the program on September 8, 2015. According to the record, Blair has five prior felony convictions in Washington, including second degree theft, second degree burglary, possession of a stolen vehicle, and two counts of theft of a motor vehicle at issue here. At sentencing, Blair argued for a "downward departure [from] the standard range" sought by the State and requested an exceptional sentence. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 40; see Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) at 25. Blair argued that although he had pleaded guilty to two counts of theft of a motor vehicle, both of those vehicles were snowmobiles, and therefore not "motor vehicles" for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065. Blair asserted that his plea to the two counts was facially invalid.

         In his briefing to the sentencing court, Blair requested to be "sentenced as if those were not motor vehicle convictions, which would result in a standard range of 17-22 months." CP at 40. At the sentencing hearing, Blair asserted that the correct standard sentencing range should be "22 to 29 months," based on an offender score of "seven." VRP at 28.

         The State argued that Blair's offender score should be "nine" and the standard range should be "43 to 57 months." VRP at 24. The State opposed Blair's request for an exceptional sentence, arguing that for the sentencing court to "review another superior court judge's decision and be an appellate review court for that" would be inappropriate. VRP at 28; see CP at 58-61. The sentencing judge agreed with the State, reasoning as follows:

What I'm being asked to do today is not just look at the documents that were filed at the time of the plea and sentencing but to actually make a determination that one of the elements alleged is missing, that it was not in fact a motor vehicle.
I think that goes way beyond whether you could get that from just looking at the documents themselves on their face. And I think it may be an excellent argument for a restraint petition or some other venue, but I don't think it supports my going forward with an exceptional sentence today.

         VRP at 31. At the sentencing hearing, the State announced that Blair requested to be sentenced under the drug offender sentencing alternative (DOSA) and that the State "[was] in agreement with that." VRP at 31. The calculation was based on "[h]alf the midpoint of a standard range on [Blair's] charge." VRP at 31. The court accepted the recommendation and sentenced Blair to 25 months in custody and 25 months of community custody.

         The Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion affirmed. It noted that Blair challenged his offender score calculation seeking an exceptional sentence, and that "[v]iewed as an unsuccessful exceptional sentence request, Mr. Blair's appeal would necessarily fail." State v. Blair, No. 3391 l-4-III, slip op. at 3 (Wash.Ct.App. Dec. 1, 2016) (unpublished), http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/339114_unp.pdf. The Court of Appeals nevertheless relied on the "common law 'sentencing error' exception to RAP 2.5(a)" to reach Blair's facial invalidity claim. Blair, slip op. at 3. It then rejected Blair's facial invalidity argument, reasoning that "whether [RCW 9A.56.065] applies to snowmobiles would require more than a simple look at the judgment and sentence and associated documents" and would instead require the sentencing court to engage in "construing a statute." Blair, slip op. at 5. The Court of Appeals did not reach the issue of whether snowmobiles were motor vehicles for purposes of RCW 9A.56.065.

         Analysis

         Generally, the length of a criminal sentence imposed by a superior court is not subject to appellate review if the punishment falls within the correct standard sentencing range. RCW 9.94A.585(1); State v. Williams, 149 Wn.2d 143, 146, 65 P.3d 1214 (2003). And "[a]n appellate court will reverse a sentencing court's decision only if it finds a clear abuse of discretion or misapplication of the law." State v. Porter, 133 Wn.2d 177, 181, 942 P.2d 974 (1997); accord State v. Aldana Graciano, 176 Wn.2d 531, 537, 295 P.3d 219 (2013). It is error for the sentencing court to refuse '"categorically to impose an exceptional sentence below the standard range under any circumstances'" or to "operate[] under the 'mistaken belief that it did not have the discretion to impose a mitigated exceptional sentence for which [a defendant] may have been eligible.'" State v. McFarland, 189 Wn.2d 47, 56, 399 P.3d 1106 (2017) (second alteration in original) (quoting State v. Garcia-Martinez, 88 Wn.App. 322, 330, 944 P.2d 1104 (1997); In re Pers. Restraint of Mulholland, 161 Wn.2d 322, 333, 166 P.3d 677 (2007)).

         Blair sought an exceptional sentence under RCW 9.94A.535(1). At the sentencing hearing, Blair appeared to agree with the State's calculation of the offender score as nine and the standard range as 43 to 57 months. Yet, Blair also argued that "the way [Blair's convictions are] counted is not correct and . . . the correct range would be 22 to 29 months." VRP at 28 (emphasis added). The Court of Appeals concluded that RAP 2.5 generally precluded Blair from challenging the offender score calculation. It reasoned, however, that because Blair at one point explicitly challenged the correctness of the offender score calculation and the standard range calculation, "the common law 'sentencing error' exception" to RAP 2.5(a) applied, citing State v. Blazina, 182 Wn.2d 827, 344 P.3d 680 (2015), and State v. Ford, 137 Wn.2d 472, 973 P.2d 452 (1999). Blair, slip op. at 3.

         Unlike the Court of Appeals, neither the State nor Blair addresses this issue in their briefing to us.[2] Blair's briefing in the trial court[3] as well as his arguments at sentencing indicate that he raised the issue of facial invalidity of his two prior theft of a motor vehicle (TMV) convictions for purposes of the offender score calculation and that the strictures of RAP 2.5(a) are therefore not directly applicable. Unlike Blazina, where the defendant never objected to the sentencing condition, and Ford, where the defendant never objected to the classification of his prior offenses as felonies, Blair objected at sentencing to the use of the two prior convictions at issue on the grounds of facial invalidity. Blair's facial invalidity argument is therefore properly before this court.

         As we have previously stated, "It is well settled that the State is not required to prove the constitutional validity of prior convictions used to calculate a defendant's offender score on a current conviction." State v. Irish, 173 Wn.2d 787, 789, 272 P.3d 207 (2012) (citing State v. Ammons, 105 Wn.2d 175, 187-88, 713 P.2d 719, 718 P.2d 796 (1986)). The concept of facial invalidity has been most thoroughly examined in In re Personal Restraint of Coats.[4] In Coats, we said that "we have found errors rendering a judgment [facially] invalid under RCW 10.73.090 only where a court has in fact exceeded its statutory authority in entering the judgment or sentence." Coats, 173 Wn.2d at 135 (emphasis added). That includes collateral attacks on convictions for nonexistent crimes. In re Pers. Restraint of Hinton, 152 Wn.2d 853, 857, 100 P.3d 801 (2004).

         Blair argues that the facial invalidity standard should be the same standard applied to personal restraint petitions (PRPs), and that we should conclude that the sentencing court may look at "related law and documents associated with plea agreements" and engage in "some degree of statutory interpretation." Suppl. Br. of Pet'r at 9, 11. Conversely, the State argues that where we are reviewing a challenge to a prior conviction at sentencing, Ammons and Irish should control and facial constitutional invalidity must be alleged. Suppl. Br. of Resp't at 7, 11. The State argues that for a sentencing court to engage in statutory interpretation at the sentencing hearing would unduly burden that court and result in minitrials focused on the prior criminal history, undercut the finality of long-settled judgments, and impede consistency in how prior convictions are treated. The Court of Appeals similarly reasoned that the question of whether the ...


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