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. Heath, 21 Kan. App. 2d 410 (1995).
This case addresses the following issue:
- May a court consider the time that has passed from previous convictions when determining whether or not to grant a departure sentence?
- May a court consider the relatedness of previous crimes when determining whether or not to grant a departure sentence?
The issue in this case includes whether or not the trial court erred by imposing a downward departure sentence due to a period of good behavior following a period of criminal history which was accumulated while the defendant was a juvenile. Id. at 31-32. In an appeal from a departure sentence, an appellate court is to determine whether the sentencing court’s finding of fact and reasons justifying the departure were (1) supported by substantial competent evidence and (2) constitute substantial and compelling reasons for departure as a matter of law. Id. at 32. This includes an evidentiary test – that the facts stated by the court in justification are supported by the record; and a law test – that the reasons stated on the record for departure are adequate to justify a sentence outside the presumptive sentence. Id.
In this case, the defendant was involved in a car accident where the passenger in his vehicle was killed. Id. at 411. The defendant at the time had a blood alcohol level at .151, and subsequently pled no contest to charges of involuntary manslaughter. Id. The defendant’s presumptive sentence included imprisonment for a term of 50 to 55 months. Id. The defendant then filed a motion for a downward departure sentence, which the court approved, imposing a sentence of 50 months in prison, but placing him on probation under the supervision of community corrections for a duration of 60 months. Id. The sentencing judge reasoned that the defendant should not be forced to spend the 50 months in jail for the crimes he committed when he was a juvenile, and which are totally unrelated to the crime at issue at this time. Id. at 31-32. On appeal, the court considered several factors listed by the trial court as to if the decision was supported by competent evidence. Id. at 32. Ultimately, the appellate court held that the facts and reasons used by the trial court were supported by the evidence. Id. These included: (1) the fact that the only person felony in the defendant’s criminal history occurred 16 years before the present case, (2) the fact that the victim’s father testified that the defendant should not be incarcerated, (3) the victim’s mother testified that the defendant did not intentionally kill her son, and (4) that in all of the severity level 5 crimes, the defendant’s charge did not require an intent to injury. Id. The court then moved on to the determination as to if the factors cited were compelling reasons for departure. Id. at 33. The appellate court subsequently noted that the mitigating factors used by the court were not expressly listed in K.S.A. 1993 Supp. 21-4716(b)(1). Id. In regards to age and un-relatedness of previous convictions as a mitigating factor, specifically the court noted that there is to be a difference in the determination as to the correct grid block for sentencing and the “decision to deviate from the presumptive punishment with a durational or dispositional departure.” Id. The court furthered that if the trial courts are not allowed to consider the age and un-relatedness of prior convictions when determining if a departure is justified, then the overall legislative goal if preserving judicial discretion will be lost. Id. The appellate court thus held that given the nonviolent nature of the defendant’s current offense and the purpose of the guidelines, the trial court did not err by considering the age of his previous criminal history and the un-relatedness of the previous crimes. Id. at 34.