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State v. Sanchez

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

October 3, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JUAN TRINIDAD SANCHEZ, Defendant-Appellant.


          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General Anita Carlson, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellee

          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Kathleen T. Baldridge, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant



         {¶1} Defendant Juan Trinidad Sanchez appeals the district court's enhancement of his sentence for felony escape from a community custody release program (CCP) under NMSA 1978, Section 30-22-8.1 (1999). We conclude that Defendant's sentence was not improper because: (1) the felony escape from CCP statute allows for an elevated degree of offense based on a prior felony charge irrespective of whether the defendant is ultimately convicted of the felony; (2) the Legislature did not contemplate a prior felony conviction in assigning the punishment for felony escape from CCP, and (3) the escape from CCP statute and the habitual offender enhancement statute serve different purposes. We affirm Defendant's sentence as consistent with the plain language of the statutes as well as case law recognizing the difference between enhancements based on prior convictions and elevated degrees of offense based on prior charges.


         {¶2} Defendant was convicted of felony possession of a controlled substance and was subsequently committed to CCP. Two weeks after being committed to CCP Defendant cut off his ankle monitor, failed to respond to messages from monitoring officers, and was subsequently taken into custody. A grand jury indicted Defendant for escape from CCP. The State charged Defendant with felony escape from CCP because the possession charge, for which Defendant was committed to CCP, was also a felony, and a jury found him guilty. The State then sought to enhance Defendant's felony escape conviction by eight years pursuant to the habitual offender statute, asserting that Defendant had three or more prior felony convictions, one of which was his conviction for possession of a controlled substance (felony possession).[1] The district court found Defendant was a habitual offender, and enhanced his sentence for felony escape by eight years. This appeal followed.


         {¶3} Defendant argues that his conviction for felony possession was impermissibly used twice during sentencing: first to elevate the degree of the escape charge to a felony, and then again as a prior felony conviction for purposes of the habitual offender enhancement. We must therefore decide whether a felony charge that ultimately results in a conviction and gives rise to a felony escape conviction under Section 30-22-8.1 can then be used as a prior felony conviction for a habitual offender enhancement of the felony escape sentence. Much of the case law on this issue contains ambiguous or vague language, including references to felonies, rather than convictions, and punishments, as opposed to sentences or increased degrees of an offense. We are nonetheless able to discern two distinct lines of case law: those analyzing statutes, which require proof of a prior felony conviction or proof of a defendant's status as a felon, and those analyzing statutes that do not. For the reasons that follow, we believe this case belongs in the latter category.

         A. Sentencing Framework

         {¶4} "In New Mexico, the court's sentencing authority is limited by statute[, and t]he [L]egislature must give express authorization for a sentence to be imposed." State v. Lacey, 2002-NMCA-032, ¶ 5, 131 N.M. 684, 41 P.3d 952 (citation omitted). "We review issues of statutory interpretation de novo." State v. Strauch, 2015-NMSC-009, ¶ 13, 345 P.3d 317. When interpreting a statute, we seek to give effect to the Legislature's intent, and do so by looking first to the plain meaning of the statute's language. State v. Nieto, 2013-NMCA-065, ¶ 4, 303 P.3d 855. If the language of the statute "is clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to that language and refrain from further statutory interpretation." State v. Johnson, 2001-NMSC-001, ¶6, 130N.M. 6, 15 P.3d 1233.

         {¶5} The Criminal Sentencing Act, NMSA 1978 Section 31 -18-12 to -26 (1977, as amended through 2016), grants courts the authority to sentence "all persons convicted of a crime under the laws of New Mexico." Section 31-18-13 (A). Pursuant to the habitual offender statute contained within the Criminal Sentencing Act, the extent to which a defendant's sentence can be enhanced depends on the number of the defendant's prior felony convictions. See §31-18-17(C) (providing that a person convicted of a felony within the Criminal Code who has incurred three or more qualifying prior felony convictions may be characterized as a habitual offender "and his basic sentence shall be increased by eight years"). Despite the habitual offender statute's statement of broad applicability to "all persons convicted of a crime," our courts have recognized certain exceptions to its broad application. State v. Peppers, 1990-NMCA-057, ¶ 28, 110 N.M. 393, 796 P.2d 614.

         {¶6} The case law recognizing these exceptions all involve the improper use of a prior conviction, either to support an element of a subsequent conviction and an enhancement under the habitual offender statute or to stand as the basis for two separate enhancements. For example, in State v. Keith, 1985-NMCA-012, ¶¶ 3, 11, 102 N.M. 462, 697 P.2d 145, we held that a prior armed robbery conviction could not be used to elevate a defendant's subsequent armed robbery conviction from a second degree to a first degree felony and then further enhance the defendant's sentence under the habitual offender statute. Then, in State v. Haddenham, 1990-NMCA-048, ¶ 21, 110 N.M. 149, 793 P.2d 279, we held that a prior felony conviction could not be used to satisfy an element of a felon in possession of a firearm conviction, and also be used to enhance the defendant's sentence under the habitual offender statute. Finally, in Lacey, 2002-NMCA-032, ¶¶ 15-16, this Court held that a prior felony trafficking conviction could not be used to elevate a subsequent trafficking conviction from a second to first degree felony, and then be used to enhance the defendant's sentence for conspiracy to commit a first degree felony.

         {¶7} Each of these cases follow the analytical framework set out in Keith, where this Court began with the language of the statutes and, perceiving a general "reluctance to allow stacking of enhancements directed at similar purposes[, ]" concluded that where a general statute-in these cases, the habitual offender enhancement statute-is in conflict with a more specific one, "the specific [statute] is construed as an exception to the general statute." 1985-NMCA-012, ¶¶ 6, 9. Keith referred to our policy of strictly construing highly penal statutes and the rule of lenity in reaching its holding. Id. ¶¶ 10-11. Haddenham largely followed the same approach, again finding a common purpose between the statutes at issue and referencing the rule of lenity. 1990-NMCA-048, ¶¶ 14, 20. Haddenham also refined the analysis by emphasizing the importance of legislative intent in considering prior convictions as part of a subsequent conviction: "Where the legislative intent is to permit the use of the same facts to impose an enhanced sentence, the legislation must clearly so indicate." Id. ¶ 20. It is Lacey, however, that truly solidified the importance of gleaning legislative intent from the language of the statute by drawing a clear distinction between crimes that require a prior felony conviction, either as a basis for enhancement or factual element, and those that do not. 2002-NMCA-032, ¶ 14. In addition to considering the common purpose of the statutes at issue and acknowledging the rule of lenity, the Lacey court analyzed the issue that is the crux of an analysis under Keith and its progeny: "if a prior felony conviction is already taken into account in determining the punishment for a ...

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