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Isom v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 18, 2017

Ervin Isom, Petitioner/Cross-Respondent
v.
The People of the State of Colorado, Respondent/Cross-Petitioner

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 13CA1305

          Attorneys for Petitioner/Cross-Respondent: The Noble Law Firm, LLC Antony Noble Lakewood, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent/Cross-Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Wendy J. Ritz, First Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          BOATRIGHT, JUSTICE.

         ¶1 Ervin Isom was convicted of sexual assault on a child, adjudicated a habitual sex offender against children, and sentenced to an indeterminate term of forty years to life. We address the legality of Isom's sentence, specifically whether the applicable sentencing statutes impose a maximum on the minimum end of indeterminate sentences for defendants adjudicated habitual sex offenders against children.[1] We hold that to calculate the maximum permissible minimum end of an indeterminate sentence for a defendant sentenced as a habitual sex offender against children, trial courts must triple the maximum of the presumptive range for the offense and may then double the resulting figure if the court finds extraordinary aggravating circumstances under section 18-3-401(6), C.R.S. (2017). Hence, we affirm the court of appeals and conclude that the bottom end of Isom's indeterminate sentence must be no lower than eighteen years, and may be extended up to thirty-six years if the trial court finds extraordinary aggravating circumstances.[2] We thus vacate Isom's sentence of forty years to life and remand for resentencing.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 A jury found Isom guilty of sexual assault on a child, which carries a maximum presumptive sentence of six years. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that Isom was a habitual sex offender against children and sentenced him under the habitual sex offender statute. Concluding that the bottom end of the enhanced sentence did not have a maximum, the trial court sentenced Isom to an indeterminate term of forty years to life on that charge.

         ¶3 Isom filed a direct appeal, raising a number of arguments unrelated to the issues now before us. The court of appeals rejected those arguments and affirmed his conviction and sentence. People v. Isom, 140 P.3d 100 (Colo.App. 2005).

         ¶4 Isom later filed a Crim. P. 35(a) motion, arguing that the forty-years-to-life sentence was illegal because the maximum permissible sentence for his offense was eighteen years to life. The court of appeals agreed with Isom that his sentence was illegal, but it concluded that thirty-six years to life was the maximum permissible sentence for his offense. People v. Isom, 2015 COA 89, ¶ 34, ___P.3d ___. The court of appeals noted that the statute governing aggravated sentences for habitual sex offenders against children does not appear to impose a maximum for the bottom end of an enhanced, indeterminate sentence. Id. at ¶ 14. But it applied this court's holding in Vensor v. People, 151 P.3d 1274 (Colo. 2007), to conclude that the felony sentencing statutory scheme as a whole limited Isom's sentence to thirty-six years to life. Isom, ¶¶ 20-29. We granted certiorari and now affirm.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶5 Statutory interpretation is a question of law that this court reviews de novo. Hunsaker v. People, 2015 CO 46, ¶ 11, 351 P.3d 388, 391.

         III. Analysis

         ¶6 Indeterminate sentencing for sex offenders in Colorado is governed by section 18-1.3-1004, C.R.S. (2017). The general sex offender sentencing provision in section 1004(1)(a) ("the general sex offender statute") provides for a sentence of at least the minimum of the presumptive range in the sentencing statute in section 18-1.3-401 ("the general sentencing statute") and for a maximum of life. For sex offenders whose offense constitutes a crime of violence, section 1004(1)(b) provides for a sentence of at least the midpoint in the presumptive range for the level of offense committed and a maximum of life. And for offenders eligible for sentencing as habitual sex offenders as defined by section 18-3-412, C.R.S. (2017), the habitual sex offender provision in section 1004(1)(c) ("the habitual sex offender statute") provides for a sentence of "at least" three times the presumptive maximum and a maximum of life. In this case, we must determine the limits for the lower end of a sentence imposed under the habitual sex offender statute in section 1004(1)(c).

         ¶7 The parties agree that because the conviction at issue here is a sex offense, the trial court properly sentenced Isom to an indeterminate sentence with a maximum sentence of life. But they dispute whether the trial court properly set the minimum end of Isom's indeterminate sentence at forty years.

         ¶8 The People argue that Isom's sentence is proper because the statutory scheme allows a trial court to impose any minimum end equal to or greater than eighteen years. They assert that the habitual sex offender statute, section 1004(1)(c), requires only that the minimum sentence be "at least" triple the presumptive maximum-in this case six years-and does not impose an upper limit. The People's rationale is that the habitual sex offender statute is an entirely different sentencing scheme, not subject to limitations or conditions in the broader sentencing framework.

         ¶9 Isom, on the other hand, argues that his sentence is illegal because the statutory scheme requires the trial court to set the minimum value of his sentence at eighteen years. He notes that the habitual sex offender statute sets the enhanced lower limit at three times the presumptive maximum, but the general felony sentencing statute, section 18-1.3-401, sets the enhanced lower limit at two times the presumptive maximum. Rather than sextupling the presumptive maximum, Isom argues that the habitual sex offender statute trumps the general sentencing statute's limit and controls alone. In other words, since the habitual sex offender statute triples the minimum sentence, the general sentencing statute-which only allows a court to at most double the minimum sentence-is inapplicable. Therefore, Isom would have us set the lower bound of the indeterminate sentence precisely at three times the presumptive maximum and set the upper bound at life.

         ¶10 To determine Isom's range, we first look to the range for the underlying sexual- assault-on-a-child offense: two to six years. §§ 18-3-405(2), 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A), C.R.S. (2017). We then apply the habitual sex offender sentencing statute, which directs the trial court to sentence the defendant to at least three times the maximum of the presumptive range. In this case, that is six years multiplied by three; therefore, the sentence is "at least" eighteen years to life. The statute, however, does not specify a maximum bottom end to the indeterminate sentence. Hence, we must now determine whether ...


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