Providence County Superior Court P2/09-51A, William E. Carnes, Jr., Associate Justice.
For State: Christopher R. Bush Department of Attorney General.
For Defendant: Kara J. Maguire Office of the Public Defender.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
General Laws 1956 § 12-19-18 was amended by the General Assembly in 2010, see P.L. 2010, ch. 311, § 1, to provide that a sentence of imprisonment after a finding of probation violation shall be quashed, and the imprisonment terminated, in certain circumstances occurring after a judgment of probation violation is entered by a justice of the Superior Court. See § 12-19-18(b). In this appeal, we are called upon to determine whether this case-in which a trial justice imposed a suspended sentence and probationary term on the defendant, Robert Beaudoin, following a plea of nolo contendere entered before the 2010 amendment but who was adjudged to be a probation violator, imprisoned as a result, and then acquitted by a jury on the underlying charges after the statute was amended-involves retroactive application or prospective application of § 12-19-18(b). For the following reasons, we conclude that this case entails prospective, not retroactive, application of the statute. Therefore, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.
Facts and Travel
In 2009, defendant-no stranger to the criminal justice system-entered a plea of nolo contendere to one count of felony assault, which involved stabbing his victim in the throat with a razor blade or knife; he was sentenced to fifteen years at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), five months to serve and the remaining 175 months suspended with probation. The General Assembly amended § 12-19-18 and added subsections (b) and (c) on June 25, 2010. See P.L. 2010, ch. 311, § 1. Thereafter, in May 2012, defendant was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree sexual assault, see G.L. 1956 § 11-37-4, and one count of robbery, see G.L. 1956 § 11-39-1. Additionally, the state filed, pursuant to Rule 32(f) of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure, a notice of probation violation in this case based on the conduct giving rise to these charges. After an evidentiary hearing, a trial justice declared defendant to be a probation violator, removed two years of the suspended sentence, and ordered defendant to serve two years at the ACI. The defendant then proceeded to a jury trial in Superior Court on the underlying charges and was acquitted on both counts on April 26, 2013.
On the heels of his acquittal, defendant filed a motion to terminate his imprisonment under § 12-19-18(b). Pursuant to an administrative order of the presiding justice of the Superior Court, all motions seeking relief under § 12-19-18(b) were assigned to a single Superior Court trial justice. Accordingly, before hearing this case, the trial justice decided a motion in a case with a similar chronology to that of defendant's case: where the judgment of conviction was entered before the effective date of § 12-19-18(b), and the defendant was adjudicated to be a probation violator after the 2010 amendment. See State v. Ford, No. P2/05-83A, 2012 WL 3638916, at *1-2 (R.I. Super. Ct. Aug. 20, 2012). The defendant in that case (Ford) was then ordered to be incarcerated on the previously imposed suspended sentence and subsequently acquitted by a jury after a trial on the underlying charges. Id. at *2. In light of this identity of issues, the trial justice permitted defendant to incorporate the arguments made by the defendant in Ford. Similarly, the state in this case incorporated the arguments it made in Ford. The state's arguments in Ford rested on its position that the word "sentence" in § 12-19-18(b) refers to the imposition of the suspended sentence-which, in Ford's case, predated the 2010 amendment- and not the execution of that previously imposed sentence following the adjudication of probation violation. From this premise, the state argued that § 12-19-18(b) was not available to Ford because the statute could not be applied retroactively. Finally, the state contended that "the retroactive application of * * * § 12-19-18(b) would not pass constitutional muster" under separation-of-powers principles because it would vacate or modify a prior court judgment-the original judgment of conviction that included the suspended sentence-that was entered before the 2010 amendment. (Emphasis added.) In making this constitutional argument in Ford, the state did not argue that, if this case involved prospective, and not retroactive, application of the statute, § 12-19-18(b) was unconstitutional.
In this case, although the trial justice determined that defendant met the prerequisites for relief under § 12-19-18(b),  he nonetheless denied defendant's motion for two reasons. First, the trial justice concluded that application of § 12-19-18(b) in this case required retroactive application of the 2010 amendment, and he was of the opinion that the statute could not be applied retroactively. To support this conclusion, he expressly adopted his reasoning in Ford, in which the trial justice, relying on this Court's opinion in State v. Garnetto, 75 R.I. 86, 63 A.2d 777 (1949), determined that, because a probation violation hearing is but "a continuation of the original prosecution, " a defendant who was given a suspended sentence before the 2010 amendment could not be granted relief under the statute without retroactive application. Ford, 2012 WL 3638916, at *8 (quoting State v. Gautier, 871 A.2d 347, 359 (R.I. 2005)).
The trial justice went on to conclude that, notwithstanding the infirmity of retroactive application, defendant's motion also should be denied for an independent reason: that, even if applied prospectively, § 12-19-18(b) constituted an unconstitutional exercise of judicial power by the General Assembly. As he did for his conclusion on the retroactivity issue, the trial justice expressly incorporated the constitutional analysis that he laid out in Ford. The trial justice reasoned that § 12-19-18(b) improperly disturbed the judgment embodying the probation violation adjudication and the incarcerative term ordered as a result of that adjudication. He declared:
"[T]he General Assembly is without authority to affect a judgment--such as a finding of violation along with the particular imposition of sentence--that was previously entered by this [c]ourt. Such action usurps the authority of [the Superior] Court and its ability to determine if a defendant has failed to keep the peace [and be] of good behavior.
"* * * [T]he General Assembly exceeds its power when it passes legislation that affects, or otherwise encroaches on judgments and verdicts entered by the [c]ourts.
"* * * Any attempt by the Legislature to disturb a finding of a violation and the resultant imposition of a sentence by the hearing justice is an encroachment on or an attempt to subvert the power of the ...