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Abruzzese v. State

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Washington

June 7, 2019

GARY ABRUZZESE
v.
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND

          For Plaintiff: Glenn Sparr, Esq.

          For Defendant: Judy Davis, Esq.

          DECISION

          K. RODGERS, J.

         Before this Court is Gary Abruzzese's (Petitioner) Application for Post-Conviction Relief (Application). Petitioner asserts that his conviction should be vacated because the statute under which he was convicted in State of Rhode Island v. Gary Abruzzese, W1-2008-0312A (the underlying criminal case) is unconstitutional in that it fails to describe a crime and prescribe a penalty therein.

         This Court's jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 10-9.1-1. Having reviewed the parties' memoranda, and for the reasons set forth below, this Court finds that Petitioner's convictions were not unconstitutional. Accordingly, Petitioner's Application is denied.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         On August 8, 2008, Petitioner submitted a petition to waive indictment and pled guilty to two counts of first degree child molestation under G.L. 1956 § 11-37-8.1, both counts alleged to have occurred on August 27, 2007. As to each count he was sentenced to forty years, with twenty-five years to serve at the Adult Correctional Institutions (the ACI), the balance of fifteen years suspended, with probation and various other conditions. The trial justice ordered the sentences to be served concurrently.

         On November 21, 2018, Petitioner filed a pro se Motion to Vacate Judgement of Conviction in the underlying criminal case, together with a supporting memorandum asking this Court to vacate his conviction for first degree child molestation pursuant to Rule 35 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure, alleging that his conviction is unconstitutional. On December 12, 2018, by agreement of the Office of the Attorney General and Petitioner's court-appointed counsel, this Court ordered Petitioner's Motion to Vacate to be converted to the instant Petition for Post-Conviction Relief in order that his request under Rule 35 would not suffer the same fate as in State v. Linde, 965 A.2d 415, 416 n.2 (R.I. 2009) (refusing to reach merits of a constitutional challenge in the context of a Rule 35 motion to correct an illegal sentence).

         With the agreement of the Attorney General and by Order dated February 22, 2019, this Court limited all arguments[1] to "the constitutionality of a criminal statute which allegedly fails to state what constitutes the crime alleged and/or fails to provide for a penalty thereunder," and expressly allowed Petitioner to preserve his right to file one application for post-conviction relief subsequent to the instant Petition without the State raising the affirmative defenses of res judicata and/or laches, if Petitioner is so inclined to raise different issues in any such subsequent petition relating to the underlying criminal case.

         On March 7, 2019, Petitioner's court-appointed counsel filed a Supplemental Memorandum in Support of Petitioner's Application for Post-Conviction Relief. The State filed an objection and supporting memorandum thereto on March 27, 2019. On May 24, 2019, the Court provided notice to the State and Petitioner's court-appointed counsel that Petitioner's request for relief would be considered by this Court in the context of a summary disposition. The parties thereafter acknowledged that an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary to resolve the issues before this Court.

         II

         Standard of Review

         Under § 10-9.1-1, any person who has been convicted of a crime may file an application for post-conviction relief to challenge the constitutionality of his or her conviction. Sec. 10-9.1-1(a)(1). Unlike the proceedings afforded to Petitioner for his underlying conviction, post-conviction relief motions are civil in nature. Brown v. State, 32 A.3d 901, 908 (R.I. 2011). Accordingly, the applicant bears "'the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that such [postconviction] relief is warranted.'" Motyka v. State, 172 A.3d 1203, 1205 (R.I. 2017) (quoting Anderson v. State, 45 A.3d 594, 601 (R.I. 2012)). Additionally, because Petitioner challenges the constitutionality of his conviction, Petitioner has the heightened burden of demonstrating unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt. See State v. Beck, 114 R.I. 74, 77, 329 A.2d 190, 193 (1974).

         When ruling on an application for post-conviction relief, if the court considers matters outside the pleadings, the court should "treat the [party's] motion as though it were a motion for summary disposition" as opposed to a motion to dismiss. Palmigiano v. State, 120 R.I. 402, 406, 387 A.2d 1382, 1385 (1978). As will be discussed, this Court has considered Petitioner's waiver and plea form, which are outside the pleadings in the instant civil action. Accordingly, this Court will review Petitioner's Application in the context of a summary disposition motion under § 10-9.1-6(c), which "'closely resembles' a grant of summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure." Reyes v. State, 141 A.3d 644, 652 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Palmigiano, 120 R.I. at 405, 387 A.2d at 1384).

         Under § 10-9.1-6(c), the court may grant summary disposition when it finds, based on "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions and agreements of fact, together with any affidavits submitted, that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Sec. 10-9.1-6(c). The standard for granting summary disposition on an application for post-conviction relief is the same as in granting summary judgment under Super. R. Civ. P. 56(c)-the "trial justice must consider the affidavits and pleadings . . . in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made." Palmigiano, 120 R.I. at 406, 387 A.2d at 1385. The trial justice may not resolve genuine issues of material fact or adjudge the weight or credibility of the evidence. Reyes, 141 A.3d at 653.

         III

         Analysis

         Petitioner asserts that his conviction violated his due process rights under both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and article I, section 10 of the Rhode Island Constitution because the single statute of conviction, § 11-37-8.1, fails to state what conduct qualifies as a crime and fails to provide a penalty. In response, the State contends that Petitioner cannot prove that § 11-37-8.1 is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt because Chapter 37 of Title 11 of the Rhode Island General Laws, when read as a whole, clearly and unambiguously provides a description of the criminalized conduct and states a penalty.

         Petitioner was convicted of two counts of first degree child molestation in violation of § ...


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