Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Glover, No. 110,848, 2015 WL 4366434 (Kan. Ct. App. Jun. 26, 2015).
This case addresses the following issues:
- If the charging document states the wrong severity level, must the court abide by the lowest stated severity level?
- What is the standard for an appellate court to correct an erroneous complaint when the issue is raised for the first time on direct appeal?
In this case, the appellant argues that because the complaint was not factually sufficient to state an offense of a severity level 7 felony criminal damage to property charge and rather stated only facts that would support a severity level 9 offense (damages over $1,000), the court should have been required to sentence him to the lesser severity level 9 offense rather than the appropriate severity level for the crime which was severity level 7. Id. at 4. Whether a charging document was sufficient or not to confer subject matter jurisdiction to convict a defendant of a specific charge is a question of law over which the court has unlimited review. Id. at 5. The Kansas Supreme Court adopted in State v. Hall, 246 Kan. 728, 765 (1990) a common-sense rule for cases that raise a defective complaint or information for the first time on direct appeal. There, the Kansas Supreme Court established that the defendant must show that the alleged defect either: (1) prejudiced the defendant’s preparation of a defense; (2) impaired the defendant’s ability to plead the conviction in any subsequent prosecution; or (3) limited the defendant’s substantial rights to a fair trial. Id. The rule established by the Kansas Supreme Court is consistent with the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625 (2002). In Cotton, the Supreme Court’s plain error standard included that, in order for an appellate court to correct an error not raised at trial, there must be (1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects substantial rights. Id. at 631-32. Additionally, if all three of these conditions are met, an appellate court may then exercise its discretion to notice a forfeited error, but only if (4) the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Id.
In this specific case, the appellant argues that because the complaint stated facts equivalent to a severity level 9 criminal damage to property (over $1,000 in damages), not severity level 7 criminal damage to property (over $25,000 in damages), the state should only be allowed to follow the severity level 9 charge. Kan. App. Unpub. LEXIS 516 at 4. The State conceded that the amended complaint for the severity level 7 charge incorrectly alleged “damage being more than $1,000.00” and additionally, conceded that the amended complain should have alleged the statutory damage as damage being “$25,000.00 or more”. Id. The State countered the appellant’s argument by stating that the appellant was on notice of the charge at all times and was in no way prejudiced by the error. Id. This court agreed with the State that the appellant was on notice that the criminal damage to property charge was a severity level 7 felony that was apparent to the appellant on several occasions before he entered his guilty plea. Id. at 8. This court specifically noted the following events that provided adequate notice to the appellant: (1) at the close of the preliminary hearing, the trial court openly held that the State could amend the complaint to charge a severity level 7 offense because the property damage value clearly exceeded $25,000 (actual damage around $54,000), (2) during the arraignment on the second amended complaint, the court informed the appellant that the criminal damage to property charge was a severity level seven, to wit the appellant declined to have the court read him the complaint and entered a not guilty plea to the charge, (3) at the plea hearing the State advised the appellant that the damage to the building was in excess of $25,000.00 in property damage, and (4) at the plea hearing, before accepting the appellant’s guilty plea, the court asked the appellant if he had any questions about the fact that the possible penalty for the criminal damage to property charge could fall under severity level seven, to which the appellant stated he did not have any questions. Id. at 8-10. In addition, the appellant failed to allege that he was unable to prepare a defense to the higher severity level charge and does not assert that the error denied him a fair trial. Id. at 9. This court thus held that under both Hall and Cotton any claim that the charging document was defective fails to rise to the level of reversible error. Id. at 10.