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People ex rel. J.C.

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Seventh Division

February 22, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner-Appellee, In the Interest of J.C., Juvenile-Appellant.

         Jefferson County District Court Nos. 14JD168, 14JD191, 14JD400 & 14JD522 Honorable Ann Gail Meinster, Judge

          Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, John T. Lee, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Petitioner-Appellee.

          The Noble Law Firm, LLC, Tara Jorfald, Lakewood, Colorado, for Juvenile-Appellant.

          J. JONES JUDGE.

          ¶ 1 The juvenile court sentenced J.C., a juvenile, to an indeterminate one-to-two-year term of commitment in the custody of the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC), with a mandatory minimum term of one year. We conclude that the sentence is illegal, for two reasons. First, nothing in the juvenile sentencing statutes authorizes an indeterminate sentence to DYC commitment; any such sentence must be determinate. Second, a mandatory minimum sentence to DYC commitment is authorized only if the juvenile qualifies as a special offender under section 19-2-908, C.R.S. 2017. J.C. doesn't qualify as such an offender, and therefore the juvenile court had no statutory authority to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. In deciding this second issue, we hold that a juvenile doesn't qualify as a mandatory sentence offender pursuant to section 19-2-516(1), C.R.S. 2017, or a repeat juvenile offender pursuant to section 19-2-516(2), when the multiple adjudications required by those provisions occur in the same hearing.

         ¶ 2 Accordingly, we vacate the sentence and remand the case with directions.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 J.C. pleaded guilty to charges in three separate cases, pursuant to a global plea agreement, on the same day during a hearing addressing all three cases. She pleaded guilty first to a third degree assault charge, then to a second degree criminal trespass charge, and finally to a second degree assault charge. The court accepted the pleas and adjudicated J.C. delinquent in all three cases.

         ¶ 4 At the sentencing hearing for all three cases, the prosecutor argued that because there were three adjudications, two of which were for violent offenses, the court should commit J.C. to DYC custody for two years. When the court asked the prosecutor whether she was requesting that the court sentence J.C. as a "mandatory offender, " the prosecutor said, "Yes." In sentencing J.C., the court said, "I'm going to impose a DYC commitment, a mandatory minimum of one year, but up to two years." The sentencing orders for each case reflect a sentence of "1-2 YEARS DYC." Corresponding orders to the Department of Human Services (DHS) (which includes the DYC) in each case say, "This juvenile was additionally found to be: A mandatory sentence (third time) offender pursuant to Sec. 19-2-908, C.R.S."

         ¶ 5 J.C. filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence under Crim. P. 35(a). She argued that the court lacked authority to sentence her to a mandatory minimum period of confinement as a mandatory sentence offender because the three adjudications required for the relevant statute to apply had all occurred at the same hearing. The court denied the motion. In doing so, the court said it had no "record that [J.C.] was actually sentenced as a mandatory sentence offender. The minute order does not reflect such a finding and no transcript was filed with the Motion to show that such a finding was made." Rather, the court said, it had imposed "the mandatory 1 year and a maximum of 2 years in DYC" based on "the totality of the circumstances." Apparently in the alternative, the court said that nothing in the relevant statute defining mandatory sentence offender, section 19-2-516(1)(a)(I), requires that the three adjudications be entered on separate dates.

         ¶ 6 J.C. then filed a motion for postconviction relief alleging both ineffective assistance of plea counsel and that she hadn't knowingly, voluntarily, or intentionally pleaded guilty. Common to both claims was her assertion that her lawyer hadn't told her that by pleading guilty she could be sentenced as a mandatory sentence offender. The court summarily denied the motion, ruling, as now relevant, that because "it has not been shown that the court relied on this classification in its sentencing, " she hadn't shown prejudice. J.C. appeals the court's denial of the Crim. P. 35(c) motion.

         II. Discussion

         ¶ 7 J.C.'s opening brief argues that the juvenile court erred by summarily denying her petition for postconviction relief because she had alleged that neither her lawyer nor the court had advised her "that she would be sentenced as a repeat juvenile offender" and that she was prejudiced by counsel's deficient performance and the court's failure to advise her. That prejudice was that she wouldn't have pleaded guilty if she'd known she would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of confinement.

         ¶ 8 After reading the parties' briefs and the record, we asked the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing the following four issues:

1. Notwithstanding the district court's statements in denying J.C.'s Crim. P. 35(a) motion, did the district court sentence J.C. As a mandatory sentence offender or repeat juvenile offender pursuant to § 19-2-908, C.R.S. 2017?
2.If not, what statutory authority did the district court have to sentence J.C. to a "mandatory minimum" period of commitment?
3.If so, did J.C. qualify as a mandatory sentence offender under §§ 19-2-516(1) and 19-2-908(1)(a)? Explain.
4.If so, did J.C. qualify as a repeat juvenile offender under §§ 19-2-516(2) and 19-2-908(1)(b)? Explain.

         ¶ 9 Having reviewed the parties' supplemental briefs and the relevant law, we conclude that J.C.'s sentence is illegal. We therefore vacate the sentence. And because we vacate the sentence on which J.C.'s Crim. P. 35(c) claims are premised, we also conclude that her Crim. P. 35(c) motion is moot.

         A. We May Consider the Legality of J.C.'s Sentence

         ¶ 10 Initially, the People invite us to hold that J.C. abandoned the issue of the legality of her sentence because she didn't appeal from the order denying her motion to correct an illegal sentence. They acknowledge that Crim. P. 35(a) authorizes a court to correct an illegal sentence "at any time." Nonetheless, they urge us not to consider this issue because, they argue, (1) the word "may" in that rule creates an option, but not an obligation for an appellate court to vacate an illegal sentence;[1] and (2) therefore we should apply the familiar principle of appellate practice that a party waives for appeal an issue that she doesn't reassert on appeal. ¶ 11 The People's argument, however, overlooks the more directly relevant principle that "[a]llegations that a particular sentence is void or illegal require inquiry into the subject matter jurisdiction of the sentencing court and may not be waived." Downing v. People, 895 P.2d 1046, 1050 (Colo. 1995); see People v. Hinchman, 196 Colo. 556, 530, 589 P.2d 917, 920 (1978). Indeed, when there's a question as to the court's subject matter jurisdiction, a court has an obligation to address it, even if the parties haven't raised it. See People v. S.X.G., 2012 CO 5, ¶ 9; Allison v. Engel, 2017 COA 43, ¶ 22; see also Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986) (an appellate court has an "obligation" to consider a trial court's jurisdiction, even if the parties conceded it); Archer W. Contractors, Ltd. v. Benise-Dowling & Assocs., Inc., 33 So.3d 1216, 1270 (Ala. 2009) ("[W]e are obligated to address the absence of [a trial court's] subject-matter jurisdiction ex mero motu.").

         ¶ 12 The "at any time" language of Crim. P. 35(a) merely gives effect to this principle. So a defendant may raise the legality of his sentence for the first time on appeal. Downing, 895 P.2d at 1050; Hinchman, 196 Colo. at 530, 589 P.2d at 919-20. And a court may raise the issue on its own. People v. White, 179 P.3d 58, 61 (Colo.App. 2007) (citing Guerin v. Fullerton, 154 Colo. 142, 144, 389 P.2d 84, 85 (1964)). In any case, save perhaps when issue preclusion or some other similar doctrine applies, see In re Marriage of Mallon, 956 P.2d 642, 645-46 (Colo.App. 1998), a substantial question as to a court's subject matter jurisdiction, whenever or however raised, isn't one a court is free to duck.

         ¶ 13 We decline the ...

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