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State v. Knight

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Kent

June 8, 2018


          For Plaintiff: Kaitlin Tracey, Esq.

          For Defendant: Samantha Slack, Esq. Michelle M. Alves, Esq.



         This matter is before the Court on the State of Rhode Island's (the State) appeal of Superior Court Magistrate John F. McBurney, III's (Magistrate) decision to defer sentencing Megan Knight (Defendant) for one year, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 12-19-19 (the deferred sentence statute). On appeal, the State challenges the deferred sentence statute's constitutionality. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-11.1(d).

         I Facts and Travel

         On July 20, 2017, the State charged Defendant with one count of violating G.L. 1956 § 11-32-3, "Obstruction of the judicial system, " based on allegations that Defendant "maliciously and recklessly" influenced her four-year-old daughter's testimony in a separate criminal proceeding.[1] See Crim. Info., C.A. No. K2-2017-0453A at 1. At a plea hearing, held on November 8, 2017, the Magistrate offered Defendant a one-year deferred sentence in consideration of her pleading nolo contendere. (Tr. I at 7.)

         At that plea hearing, the Magistrate afforded the State an opportunity to place its objection to the deferred sentence agreement on the record: "As it relates to the deferred [sentence], the state is looking for two years' probation on this. And the amendment that removes the attorney general from the deferred sentence agreement violates the separation of powers provisions of the Rhode Island Constitution . . . ." Id. at 6. Thereafter, the Magistrate found that there was a sufficient factual basis to accept Defendant's plea and then entered a judgment deferring Defendant's sentence for one year. Id. at 7. The Magistrate added that Defendant will be "automatically eligible for expungement after that one-year sentence ends as long as she has not been involved in any other criminal proceedings."[2] Id.

         On November 9, 2017, the State timely filed this appeal. This appeal is restricted to only a review of the deferred sentence statute's constitutionality. (State's Notice of Appeal at 2.) On November 29, 2017, the parties appeared before the Magistrate on "[D]efendant's motion to perfect a deferred sentence agreement." (Tr. at 1, Nov. 29, 2017) (Tr. II.) At that time, Defendant, Defendant's attorney, and the Magistrate signed a "Deferred Sentence Agreement" form, which reflected the terms of the November 8, 2017 plea agreement. See Deferred Sentence Agreement at 1, Nov. 29, 2017.

         II Standard of Review

         The Superior Court's review of a Magistrate decision is governed by § 8-2-11.1(d). Section 8-2-11.1(d) provides:

"A party aggrieved by an order entered by the administrator/magistrate shall be entitled to a review of the order by a justice of the superior court. Unless otherwise provided in the rules of procedure of the court, the review shall be on the record and appellate in nature. The court shall, by rules of procedure, establish procedures for review of orders entered by the administrator/magistrate, and for enforcement of contempt adjudications of the administrator/magistrate." Sec. 8-2-11.1(d).

Rule 2.9(h) of the Superior Court Rules of Practice presently governs the standard of review. Rule 2.9(h) provides:

"The Superior Court justice shall make a de novo determination of those portions to which the appeal is directed and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the judgment, order, or decree of the magistrate. The justice, however, need not formally conduct a new hearing and may consider the record developed before the magistrate, making his or her own determination based on that record whether there is competent evidence upon which the magistrate's judgment, order, or decree rests. The justice may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter with instructions." Super. Ct. R. P. 2.9(h) (emphasis added). [3]

         Thus, the Superior Court justice conducts a de novo review of the portions of the record appealed. See Paradis v. Heritage Loan and Inv. Co., 678 A.2d 440, 445 (R.I. 1996). The record on appeal includes "[t]he original papers and exhibits filed with the Superior Court, the transcript of the proceedings, and the docket entries." Super. Ct. R. P. 2.9(f).

         III Analysis

         On appeal, this Court's review of the Magistrate's decision is restricted to only those portions of the record that are appealed. In the instant matter, it is undisputed that the scope of this Court's review is limited to whether the deferred sentence statute violates the Rhode Island Constitution. The State contends that the deferred sentence statute violates the Rhode Island Constitution's separation of powers provision by infringing on the State's authority to criminally inform an individual, as well as its authority to dismiss criminal charges. (Tr. I at 6-7.) Specifically, the State asserts that the deferred sentence statute unconstitutionally grants the Court the authority to end the prosecution of a criminal case by permitting the Court and a criminal defendant to enter into a deferred sentence agreement without the State's consent. Id.

         A Constitutional Powers of Government

         Article V of the Rhode Island Constitution declares that "[t]he powers of the government shall be distributed into three separate and distinct departments: the legislative, executive and judicial." R.I. Const. art. V. The distribution of "governmental power among the three departments of government indicates that the powers distributed to one department cannot be exercised at all by another department." In re Advisory Op. to the Governor, 732 A.2d 55, 102 (R.I. 1999) (citing Narragansett Indian Tribe v. State, 667 A.2d 280, 282 (R.I. 1995)).

         The powers and duties of the Rhode Island Attorney General fall within the functions of the executive branch. R.I. Const. art. IX, § 12. Section 42-9-4(a) of the Rhode Island General Laws establishes the State's authority to prosecute criminal offenses: "The attorney general shall draw and present all informations and indictments, or other legal or equitable process, against any offenders, as by law required, and diligently, by a due course of law or equity, prosecute them to final judgment and execution." Sec. 42-9-4(a). Our Supreme Court has stated: '"It is well settled in this state that the Attorney General is the only state official vested with prosecutorial discretion.'" State v. Young, 941 A.2d 124, 128 (R.I. 2008) (quoting State v. Rollins, 116 R.I. 528, 533, 359 A.2d 315, 318 (1976)); see also State v. Lead Indus. Ass'n, Inc., 951 A.2d 428, 473 n.45 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Orabona v. Linscott, 49 R.I. 443, 445, 144 A. 52, 53 (1928)) ('"Under the Constitution and by long-established practice great power and responsibility for the enforcement of the criminal laws are lodged in the Attorney General."'); In re House of Representatives (Special Prosecutor), 575 A.2d 176, 179 (R.I. 1990). Moreover, the power to dismiss criminal cases rests solely with the State. See Super. R. Crim. P. 48(a).

         The powers granted to the judicial branch are set forth in article X, § 2 of our constitution:

"The supreme court shall have final revisory and appellate jurisdiction upon all questions of law and equity. It shall have power to issue prerogative writs, and shall also have such other jurisdiction as may, from time to time, be prescribed by law. A majority of its judges shall always be necessary to constitute a quorum. The inferior courts shall have such jurisdiction as may, from time to time, be prescribed by law." R.I. Const. art. X, § 2.

         The Rhode Island Supreme Court '"has long recognized that the Superior Court is statutory in origin and derives its powers from statutes duly enacted by the Legislature."' State v. Briggs, 934 A.2d 811, 815 (R.I. 2007) (quoting State v. DiStefano, 764 A.2d 1156, 1167-68 (R.I. 2000)). With respect to the Court's sentencing authority, the General Assembly prescribed that this Court "may, in its discretion, select the kind of punishment to be imposed, and, if the punishment is fine or imprisonment, its amount or term within the limits prescribed by law . . . ." Sec. 12-19-2(a); see also State v. Fortes, 114 R.I. 161, 173, 330 A.2d 404, 411 (1975) ("[T]he sentencing process in the Superior Court involves an exercise of judicial discretion . . . ."). Unlike the State, the Court does not maintain the authority to dismiss a criminal case sua sponte. State v. Strom, 941 A.2d 837, 842 (R.I. 2008) (determining that the court "infringe[d] upon the constitutional powers of the Attorney General . . . [b]y prohibiting the . . . full[] prosecuti[on] [of] a felony information[] because of a sua sponte dismissal"); see also Young, 941 A.2d at 128 (finding that the trial justice could not dismiss information in the absence of a proper motion and without making appropriate findings).

         Additionally, our constitution vests the legislative authority in the General Assembly to enact, amend, and repeal statutes. R.I. Const. art VI, § 2. It is well settled that '"legislative enactments of the General Assembly are presumed to be valid and constitutional."' Narragansett Indian Tribe v. State, 110 A.3d 1160, 1162 (R.I. 2015) (quoting State v. Faria, 947 A.2d 863, 867 (R.I. 2008)); Mackie v. State, 936 A.2d 588, 595 (R.I. 2007); see also 3 Sutherland Statutory Construction ยง 59:8 (7th ed. 2008) ("When reviewing the constitutionality of a penal statute, courts presume the statute is valid and that the legislature has not acted unreasonably or arbitrarily in enacting it."). Importantly, when the Legislature enacts a statute that is clear and unambiguous, the Court '"must interpret the statute literally and must give the words of the statute their plain ...

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