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. Bird, 312 P.3d 1265 (Kan. 2013).
This case addresses the following issue:
- If I immediately accept responsibility for the crime I committed, could the court reduce my sentence?
- Can the court reduce my sentence if I pose no threat to society?
This case explored the issue of whether a defendant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime he or she committed could lessen the sentence. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that a defendant’s acceptance of responsibility could be a mitigating factor in support of a lesser sentence. Id. at 1270. Additionally, the court explored the issue of whether a court could reduce a defendant’s sentence because he or she was a low risk danger to the community. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that evidence that a defendant was peaceful, mild-mannered, and nonviolent supported the conclusion that the defendant was not a threat to society, which may be a factor that served a substantial and compelling reason to depart from the assumed sentence. Id.
After the defendant was arrested for robbing a Taco John’s restaurant, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on his home and discovered controlled substances and drug paraphernalia. Id. at 1267. Based on this evidence, the State charged the defendant with robbery, criminal threat, possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Id. Eventually, the defendant pled guilty to possession of cocaine, and in return the State dismissed the remaining drug charges. Id. A jury convicted the defendant of criminal threat and a lesser-included theft charge. Id. Prior to sentencing, the defendant filed a motion for a downward durational and dispositional departure (reduced sentence). Id. In filing the motion, the defendant cited several factors in support of his request, including his acceptance of responsibility for his actions. Id. As a result, the district court reduced the defendant’s sentence for cocaine possession from 37-42 months to 24 months. Id. at 1268. The State appealed the district court’s decision to reduce the sentence and argued: (1) the reasons for reducing the sentence were unsupported by substantial competitive evidence; and (2) the reasons supplied were not substantial and compelling as a matter of law. Id.
In addressing the issue of whether the defendant’s sentence could be reduced for acceptance of responsibility, the court noted that, while the Kansas legislature provided a list of potential factors that could be used to reduce a sentence, a sentencing court could rely on other factors not in the list to reduce a defendant’s sentence as long as the factors were consistent with the principles underlying the Kansas Sentencing Guidelines Act (KSGA). Id. 1269. Additionally, the court referenced the three legislative purposes of the KSGA: (1) to reduce prison overcrowding; (2) to protect public safety; and (3) to standardize sentences so similarly situated offenders were treated the same. Id. at 1269-70. With this in mind, the court found that the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility was consistent with the underlying principles of and legislative purposes behind enacting the KSGA. Therefore, the district court properly considered acceptance of responsibility as a factor to be considered in reducing a sentence. Id. at 1270.
Next, the court considered whether substantial competent evidence supported the district court’s decision to reduce the sentence based on acceptance of responsibility. Id. According to the court, substantial competent evidence was legal and relevant evidence a reasonable person could accept to support a conclusion. Id. In the present case, the defendant pled guilty to the crime of cocaine possession, saving the State and its witnesses significant trial preparation, time, and expense. Id. Furthermore, the defendant acknowledged that the baggie containing cocaine residue was found in his home. Id. Therefore, the court concluded that substantial competent evidence supported the district court’s conclusion that the defendant accepted responsibility for his drug crimes. Id.
In sum, while acceptance of responsibility was not a factor that was directly listed in the Kansas statute, the court determined that the district court properly used it to reduce the defendant’s sentence for cocaine possession. Id. at 1270.
In addressing the issue of whether the defendant’s sentence could be reduced because he was not a threat to society, the court noted that they had previously held that the protection of community safety was a factor that may serve as a substantial and compelling reason to depart from the assumed sentence. Id. Also, the court found that evidence that the defendant was peaceful, mild-mannered, and nonviolent supported the conclusion that the defendant was not a threat to society. Id. In determining if the defendant was a low risk danger to the community, the court relied on the defendant’s personal circumstances, including family and church support, as well as the nonviolent nature of all his past crimes. Id. With all of these taken together, the court held that the defendant’s lack of being a threat to society was a substantial and compelling reason to reduce his sentence. Id. at 1271.