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State v. Williams-Bey

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 23, 2016

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
TAUREN WILLIAMS-BEY

          Argued May 26, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Clifford, J. [judgment]; Alexander, J. [motion to correct illegal sentence].

          Heather Clark, assigned counsel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Michele C. Lukban, senior assistant state’s attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Gail P. Hardy, state’s attorney, Vicki Melchiorre, senior assistant state’s attorney, and Melissa E. Patterson, assistant state’s attorneys, for the appellee (state).

          Lavine, Beach and Alvord, Js.

          OPINION

          LAVINE, J.

         In recent years, the United States and Connecticut Supreme Courts have made major changes in the jurisprudence relating to juvenile sentencing. The law now requires that juvenile offenders facing life without parole or its functional equivalent are entitled to individual consideration that takes into account the mitigating factors of their youth. This case concerns the important question of where such consideration must be given for juvenile offenders who were sentenced prior to the recent developments in the law. Must it be in the context of a resentencing proceeding, as the defendant claims? Or may it be in the setting of a parole hearing, as the state asserts? We conclude, for the reasons that follow, that a parole hearing provides the class of juveniles under consideration with a constitutionally adequate, pragmatic, and fair opportunity to gain consideration of the mitigating factors of their youth.

         The defendant, Tauren Williams-Bey, appeals from the trial court’s dismissal of his motion to correct an illegal sentence. The defendant claims that the court erred by concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over his motion after determining that his sentence did not violate the eighth amendment to the United States constitution and article first, §§ 8 and 9, of the constitution of Connecticut. We conclude that the trial court improperly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the defendant’s motion, but properly concluded that the defendant’s federal and state constitutional rights have not been violated. The defendant’s rights have not been violated because, as will be discussed, he will be entitled to have the mitigating factors of his youth considered at a parole hearing pursuant to a recently enacted Connecticut statute and a recently decided United States Supreme Court case. We affirm the conclusion of the trial court as to the defendant’s constitutional claims, albeit on alternative grounds. See, e.g., State v. Brown, 242 Conn. 389, 395, 699 A.2d 943 (1997). The form of the judgment is improper and we remand the case with direction to render judgment denying the defendant’s motion to correct an illegal sentence. See, e.g., State v. Gemmell, 155 Conn.App. 789, 790, 110 A.3d 1234, cert. denied, 316 Conn. 913, 111 A.3d 886 (2015).

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. On December 20, 1997, the defendant and two friends jumped out of a van and shot at the victim, killing him. At the time, the defendant was sixteen years old. The state charged the defendant with murder as an accessory, in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 53a-54a and General Statutes § 53a-8, and with conspiracy to commit murder, in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 53a-54a and General Statutes § 53a-48. On January 4, 2000, the defendant pleaded guilty to murder as an accessory in violation of General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 53a-54a.[1] The court accepted the parties’ waiver of the presentence investigation report and continued the case for sentencing. On February 25, 2000, the court, Clifford, J., sentenced the defendant to thirty-five years in prison. At the time of sentencing, the crime of which the defendant was convicted made him ineligible for parole. General Statutes (Rev. to 1997) § 54-125a (b) (1). If he were to serve the full sentence, the defendant would not be released until he is fifty-two years old.

         The defendant filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence on December 16, 2013, asserting that his sentence violated the eighth amendment as explicated in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825 (2010), and Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S.__, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012). The defendant filed an amended motion to correct on April 2, 2014. In the amended motion, the defendant claimed that his sentence violated the eighth amendment because ‘‘the sentence and the manner in which it is imposed fails to provide for a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation . . . .’’ The court, Alexander, J., heard oral argument on the motion on April 2, 2014, and issued a written memorandum of decision on July 29, 2014. At the time, neither State v. Riley, 315 Conn. 637, 110 A.3d 1205 (2015), cert. denied, __ U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 1361, 194 L.Ed.2d 376 (2016), nor Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, 317 Conn. 52, 115 A.3d 1031 (2015), cert. denied sub nom. Semple v. Casiano, __ U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 1364, 194 L.Ed.2d 376 (2016), Connecticut’s leading cases on juvenile sentencing, had been decided. Riley and Casiano applied Miller retroactively to discretionary life without parole sentences and term of years sentences that are the functional equivalent of life sentences.[2] The trial court concluded that because the defendant was not serving a mandatory life without parole sentence, Graham and Miller were inapplicable. It dismissed the motion, concluding that ‘‘the defendant’s case does not fall within the narrow confines of Graham or Miller, and the relief sought exceeds the jurisdiction of this court.’’

         We conclude that the defendant’s sentence does not violate the eighth amendment as interpreted by Miller v. Alabama, supra, 132 S.Ct. 2469. Furthermore, we conclude that even if the sentence violated the eighth amendment pursuant to Miller, in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, __ U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 (2016), which decided that conferring parole eligibility on a juvenile offender is a constitutionally adequate remedy for a sentence that violates Miller’s teachings upon retroactive application, and the fact that the defendant will be parole eligible under § 1 of No. 15-84 of the 2015 Public Acts (Public Act 15-84), codified at General Statutes § 54-125a (f), the defendant and those similarly situated have been provided with a constitutionally adequate remedy. In reaching this conclusion we address (1) the recent changes in the law regarding juvenile sentencing, (2) the trial court’s jurisdiction over the motion to correct, (3) whether, assuming the defendant’s thirty-five year without parole sentence violated the constitutional principles defined in Miller, his eligibility for parole under § 54-125a (f), rather than resentencing, is a constitutionally adequate remedy under the eighth amendment to the United States constitution; and (4) whether parole eligibility, rather than resentencing, is a constitutionally adequate remedy under the constitution of Connecticut. Due to the somewhat complex nature of the issues presented, a detailed analysis is required.

         I

         LAW REGARDING JUVENILE SENTENCING

         We first discuss the law regarding juvenile sentencing, as the law in this rapidly evolving area has changed since the defendant filed his motion to correct. The eighth amendment of the United States constitution provides: ‘‘Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.’’ This provision is applicable to the states through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. See Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 239- 40, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972). In Miller, the United States Supreme Court held that sentencing schemes imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of homicide offenses violate the eighth amendment. Miller v. Alabama, supra, 132 S.Ct. 2469. In Graham v. Florida, supra, 560 U.S. 74, the court had determined that imposing mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes likewise constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.[3] Specifically, Miller requires that prior to sentencing juveniles to life without parole, a judicial authority must ‘‘take into account how children are different [from adults], and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.’’ Miller v. Alabama, supra, 2469. Thus, juvenile offenders facing life without the possibility of parole are entitled to an individualized sentencing that considers the mitigating factors of their youth.

         Our Supreme Court has determined that ‘‘the holding in Miller implicates not only mandatory sentencing schemes, but also discretionary sentencing schemes that permit a life sentence without parole for a juvenile offender but do not mandate consideration of Miller’s mitigating factors.’’ Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, supra, 317 Conn. 72. Thus, in Connecticut, Miller applies to discretionary sentences and term of years sentences that are functionally equivalent to life without parole. Our Supreme Court has addressed what constitutes a functional life without parole sentence. In State v. Riley, supra, 315 Conn. 641, our Supreme Court concluded that an aggregate sentence of 100 years without parole imposed on a juvenile offender violates Miller, and remanded the case for resentencing with consideration of the factors identified in Miller.[4] Our Supreme Court has concluded that Miller applies in both direct and collateral review sentencing appeals. See id. (direct appeal); Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, supra, 54-55 (habeas appeal). The defendant in Casiano, whose case was on collateral review, was sentenced to fifty years without parole. In reaching its conclusion that a sentence of fifty years without parole violates Miller, the court rejected the ‘‘notion that, in order for a sentence to be deemed life imprisonment, it must continue until the literal end of one’s life.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, supra, 73, 75. The court remanded the case for resentencing.

         Riley and Casiano also dealt with claims brought under Graham v. Florida, supra, 560 U.S. 48. As our Supreme Court has explained: ‘‘Graham precludes the [judicial authority] from determining at the outset that a juvenile nonhomicide offender is beyond rehabilitation, [and] thus requir[es] that such offenders be afforded a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation if sentenced to life imprisonment.’’ State v. Riley, supra, 315 Conn. 661. Because Graham specifically applied to nonhomicide offenses, our Supreme Court in Riley declined to consider that defendant’s Graham claim that he was entitled to a ‘‘second look.’’ Id., 663.

         In Riley, which involved a direct appeal, our Supreme Court concluded that the Graham claim was not ripe, and that legislation regarding the ‘‘ ‘means and mechanisms for compliance’ with the dictates of Graham’’ was pending in our legislature. Id., 662. In Casiano, our Supreme Court declined to consider the habeas petitioner’s Graham claim and deferred to the legislature, stating that it had ‘‘every reason to expect that [its] decisions in Riley and [Casiano] will prompt our legislature to renew earlier efforts to address the implications of the [United States] Supreme Court’s decisions in Graham and Miller.’’ (Emphasis added.) Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, supra, 317 Conn. 79.

         There have been two extremely significant changes in the law regarding juvenile sentencing at the state and federal level since our Supreme Court decided Riley and Casiano: our legislature’s enactment of Public Act 15-84 and the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, supra, 136 S.Ct. 718. On October 1, 2015, Public Act 15-84, codified in part at §§ 54-91g and 54-125a (f), which was entitled ‘‘An Act Concerning Lengthy Sentences for Crimes Committed by a Child or Youth And the Sentencing of a Child or Youth Convicted of Certain Felony Offenses, ’’ became effective. This public act was our legislature’s direct response to Miller, Graham, Riley, and Casiano. See, e.g., 58 S. Proc., Pt. 8, 2015 Sess., p. 2644, remarks of Senator John A. Kissel. It provides parole eligibility for juveniles sentenced to greater than ten years incarceration prior to Miller and Graham, [5] and also provides prospective sentencing procedures that bring Connecticut into compliance with the requirements of Graham and Miller going forward.[6] Under § 54-125a (f), a juvenile offender serving a sentence of greater than ten years incarceration on or after October 1, 2015, will be parole eligible. If the sentence is fifty years incarceration or less, the juvenile becomes parole eligible after serving 60 percent of his or her sentence, or twelve years, whichever is greater. If the sentence is greater than fifty years, the juvenile offender becomes parole eligible after serving thirty years. The statute also requires the parole board to consider whether ‘‘such person has demonstrated substantial rehabilitation since the date such crime or crimes were committed considering such person’s character, background and history, as demonstrated by factors, including, but not limited to . . . the age and circumstances of such person as of the date of the commission of the crime or crimes, whether such person has demonstrated remorse and increased maturity since the date of the commission of the crime or crimes . . . obstacles that such person may have faced as a child or youth in the adult correctional system, the opportunities for rehabilitation in the adult correctional system and the overall degree of such person’s rehabilitation considering the nature and circumstances of the crime or crimes.’’ (Emphasis added.) General Statutes § 54-125a (f) (4) (C). These criteria substantially encompass the mitigating factors of youth referenced in Miller and Riley. See footnote 4 of this opinion. Furthermore, the statute ensures that indigent juvenile offenders will have the right to counsel in obtaining, in the terminology of Graham, a ‘‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release.’’ Graham v. Florida, supra, 560 U.S. 75. Overall, the legislature not only gave Miller retroactive application, but also effectively eliminated life without the possibility of parole, even as a discretionary sentence, for juvenile offenders in Connecticut.

         Also of great significance is the fact that the United States Supreme Court has substantially refined its holding in Miller since our Supreme Court decided Riley and Casiano. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, supra, 136 S.Ct. 718, decided on January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held that Miller applies retroactively upon collateral review to all juvenile offenders serving mandatory life without parole sentences because Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.[7] Id., 734. The court also recognized that the substantive rule in Miller had procedural components regarding the factors that the judicial authority must consider. It stated that ‘‘Miller requires [the judicial authority] to consider a juvenile offender’s youth and attendant characteristics before determining that life without parole is a proportionate sentence.’’ Id. The court noted that ‘‘[t]he foundation stone for Miller’s analysis was [the] Court’s line of precedent holding certain punishments disproportionate when applied to juveniles.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 732. The court reiterated that because of children’s decreased culpability and greater ability to reform, ‘‘Miller recognized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing life without parole on juvenile offenders.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 733. ‘‘Miller, then, did more than require [the judicial authority] to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of the distinctive attributes of youth.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 734.

         The United States Supreme Court, however, also recognized in Montgomery the practical limitations in remedying sentences that violated Miller upon its retroactive application. Juvenile offenders whose sentences violate Miller upon retroactive application did not have the opportunity to demonstrate the mitigating factors of youth at the time of sentencing. The court emphasized that this violation of Miller could be remedied by affording those juvenile offenders parole eligibility, thus providing, in the context of Graham, a meaningful ‘‘opportunity for release . . . .’’ Id., 736. The court also emphasized that ‘‘[g]iving Miller retroactive effect . . . does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them. See, e.g., Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-301 (c) (2013) (juvenile homicide offenders eligible for parole after [twenty-five] years). Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity-and who have since matured-will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

         ‘‘Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition-that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.’’ (Emphasis added.) Montgomery v. Louisiana, supra, 136 S.Ct. 736. It is within this legal framework that we address the defendant’s specific claims.

         II

         JURISDICTION

         We first address the issue of whether the trial court had jurisdiction over the defendant’s motion to correct an illegal sentence. The trial court dismissed the defendant’s motion to correct for lack of jurisdiction. The defendant appealed, claiming (1) that the trial court erred in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider his Miller claim; (2) that the trial court erred in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider his Graham claim;[8] and (3) that the court erroneously concluded that the defendant’s sentence did not violate the eighth amendment and the constitution of Connecticut. We agree that the trial court erred in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction.

         ‘‘Subject matter jurisdiction involves the authority of the court to adjudicate the type of controversy presented by the action before it. . . . [A] court lacks discretion to consider the merits of a case over which it is without jurisdiction . . . .’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ajadi v. Commissioner of Correction, 280 Conn. 514, 533, 911 A.2d 712 (2006). ‘‘A determination of whether the trial court has jurisdiction to consider a motion to correct an illegal sentence filed pursuant to Practice Book § 43-22 presents a question of law, and, therefore, our review is plenary.’’ State v. Henderson, 130 Conn.App. 435, 443, 24 A.3d 35 (2011), appeal dismissed, 308 Conn. 702, 66 A.3d 847 (2013) (certification improvidently granted).

         Practice Book § 43-22 provides: ‘‘The judicial authority may at any time correct an illegal sentence or other illegal disposition, or it may correct a sentence imposed in an illegal manner or any other disposition made in an illegal manner.’’ ‘‘An illegal sentence is essentially one which either exceeds the relevant statutory maximum limits, violates a defendant’s right against double jeopardy, is ambiguous, or is inherently contradictory. . . . Sentences imposed in an illegal manner have been defined as being within the relevant statutory limits but . . . imposed in a way which violates the defendant’s right . . . to be addressed personally at sentencing and to speak in mitigation of punishment . . . or his right to be sentenced by a judge relying on accurate information or considerations solely in the record, or his right that the government keep its plea agreement promises . . . .’’ State v. Logan, 160 Conn.App. 282, 287, 125 A.3d 581 (2015), cert. denied, 321 Conn. 906, 135 A.3d 279 (2016).

         The trial court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction because, at the time, Miller and Graham did not clearly apply to lengthy term of years sentences, and ‘‘the relief sought exceeds the jurisdiction of this court.’’ In reviewing the defendant’s pleadings, however, the motion challenged the manner in which the sentence was imposed, namely, that the court did not consider the Miller factors during sentencing and whether the defendant was entitled to a later meaningful opportunity for release. Because the motion to correct challenged the manner in which the sentence was imposed, the defendant’s claim was properly raised by a motion to correct pursuant to Practice Book § 43-22. See State v. Bozelko, 154 Conn.App. 750, 758-59, 108 A.3d 262 (2015) (allegations of procedural violations in sentencing properly raised in motion to correct pursuant to Practice Book § 43-22). The court’s conclusion that it could not provide the defendant a remedy did not implicate the court’s authority to determine whether the sentence had been imposed in an illegal manner. It is clear from the trial court’s memorandum of decision, however, that the court, prior to dismissing the motion, considered the merits of the defendant’s Miller and Graham claims, and concluded that the defendant’s sentence was not illegal.[9] In parts III and IV of this opinion, we address why the trial court properly concluded that the defendant’s sentence was not illegal, albeit for a different reason than the trial court. ‘‘[An appellate court] can sustain a right decision although it may have been placed on a wrong ground.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) LaBow v. LaBow, 69 Conn.App. 760, 761 n.2, 796 A.2d 592, cert. denied, 261 Conn. 903, 802 A.2d 853 (2002). Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court did not lack jurisdiction over the defendant’s motion to correct an illegal sentence and that the proper disposition was for the court to deny, rather than to dismiss, the defendant’s motion to correct.

         III

         FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONAL CLAIM

         We next address the defendant’s claim that his sentence of thirty-five years imprisonment violates the eighth amendment of the United States constitution because it was imposed without consideration of the factors listed in Miller v. Alabama, supra, 132 S.Ct. 2455. We note that, pursuant to § 54-125a (f), which the legislature enacted after the defendant filed the present appeal, the defendant will be parole eligible after serving 60 percent of his sentence, which is twenty-one years.[10] Thus, the actual issue before this court is whether parole eligibility is a constitutionally adequate remedy if the imposition of the defendant’s thirty-five year sentence without parole required the procedures set forth in Miller.[11] The defendant asserts that, notwithstanding that he will be parole eligible under § 54-125a (f), his case must be remanded for resentencing with consideration of the Miller factors as our Supreme Court ordered in Riley and Casiano. He asserts that parole eligibility is a constitutionally inadequate remedy because (1) the language in Montgomery that parole eligibility is constitutionally adequate to remedy a Miller violation is dicta, and (2) Montgomery is at odds with our own Supreme Court’s holdings in Riley and Casiano and our legislature’s intent in enacting Public Act 15-84.[12] We conclude that, for juvenile offenders who were entitled to be, but were not, sentenced with consideration of the mitigating factors of youth as required by Miller, § 54-125a (f) offers a constitutionally adequate remedy under the eighth amendment to those who qualify for parole under its provisions. Our review of the defendant’s constitutional claims is plenary. See State v. Long, 301 Conn. 216, 236, 19 A.3d 1242, cert. denied, __ U.S.__, 132 S.Ct. 827, 181 L.Ed.2d 535 (2011).

         A

         We first address the defendant’s claim that the United States Supreme Court’s statement that parole eligibility will remedy a Miller violation is dicta, and, regardless, is at odds with our Supreme Court’s rationale regarding Miller as set forth in State v.Riley, supra, 315 Conn. 637, ...


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