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Challenging a Conviction After the Sentence has Expired

May 26, 2015

Challenging a Conviction After the Sentence has Expired

CasesState v. Adrian R. Brown and State v. James D. Wooden

Issue:  May a conviction may be challenged after the sentence has expired?

Facts:  In State v. Brown, Mr. Brown was convicted of a drug offense which was apparently used to enhance his sentence in a federal case. He challenged his sentence as illegal asserting that he did not receive the pre-trial jail credits to which he was entitled. He also complained that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that the sentence was not within the proper range.

In the companion case of State v. Wooden, the defendant complained that his sentences were illegal because the sentences were concurrent and should have been consecutive and also that his sentence was above the statutory minimum without the presence of enhancement factors.

Appellate Decision:  In Brown, the intermediate court held that since the sentence had been completely served and had “expired,” the challenge to the legality of the sentence rendered the case moot. In Wooden, the court held that because the sentence had expired the claims were moot, but, in any event, the merits of the claim were not sufficient to constitute any ground for relief and thus the defendant was denied relief.

Review Granted:  May 15, 2015.

Prediction:       Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 36.1 addresses various procedures for correcting an illegal sentence.  The rule says that an illegal sentence can be corrected at any time.  The relief depends on whether the sentence was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.  If the sentence is not pursuant to a plea agreement then the trial court can amend the judgment to correct the sentence if it is illegal.

If the sentence was entered pursuant to a plea agreement then the issue is whether the illegal provision was material to the plea agreement.  If it was material then the defendant would be given the opportunity to withdraw his or her plea.  If the defendant does not withdraw the plea then the court shall enter into an amended uniform judgment setting forth the corrected sentence.  If the illegal sentence was entered pursuant to the plea agreement and the court finds that the illegal provision was not a material component then the court should enter an amended judgment setting forth the correct sentence.

The fault in the analysis of the case law goes to the concept that an illegal sentence somehow makes the conviction void. This doctrine has been around since the Scopes Monkey trial appeal. It is nonsense. The Supreme Court must clarify this doctrine because there is absolutely no reason why an illegal sentence must destroy the conviction if the illegality can be readily corrected.  Rule 36.1 is a healthy mechanism to resolve these issues in a simple manner.  For example, if pre-trial jail credits needed to be awarded to the individual then the judgment can be readily amended to award the jail credits.  This does not mean that the entire conviction must be vacated.  As to the various claims, the fact that the judge may have enhanced the sentence without necessary enhancement factors does not make the sentence necessarily illegal but, if it is illegal in violation of some statute or constitution, then the court could reduce the sentence so that it was no longer illegal.  These common-sense corrections to sentences are precisely the sort of thing that Rule 36.1 was designed to solve without requiring that the conviction be vacated and without the necessity to resort to habeas corpus petitions or administrative appeals from interpretations by the Department of Correction.

In short, David predicts that the Supreme Court will squarely hold that an illegal sentence may be corrected at any time but that the scope of relief is precisely what Rule 36.1 is designed to cover in the sense that most problems can be remedied by a correction of the judgment without dismissing the conviction which is what most of the appeals are about in any event.  Prisoners file these motions such as a loss of jail credits, seeking to vacate the conviction.  If the trial court would go ahead and award jail credits as requested then that would solve the problem without necessarily threatening the validity of the conviction itself.  Until the Supreme Court squarely holds that a non-material illegality does not affect the validity of the conviction, cases such as these will continue.  Rule 36.1 is very clear and while both defendants will be held to have their cases considered on the merits, the merits will probably result in no material relief.  There is no reason to Monkey around with convictions where the sentence can be rendered lawful.