One of the statutory aggravating factors for felony sentencing is that the defendant has, during the 10-year period prior to the commission of the offense now being sentenced, been found to be in willful violation of probation, post-release supervision, or parole. G.S. 15A-1340.16(d)(12a). It sounds straightforward enough, but it turns out to be a little tricky to apply in practice.
A person convicted of a felony is eligible for an additional prior record point if “the offense was committed while the offender was on supervised or unsupervised probation, parole, or post-release supervision, or while the offender was serving a sentence of imprisonment, or while the offender was on escape from a correctional institution.” G.S. 15A-1340.14(b)(7). I call that point the “under supervision” bonus point. Though part of the defendant’s prior record level, the point is probably best thought of as an aggravating factor. A recent court of appeals case reminds us why.
A defendant charged in district court with the misdemeanor crime of driving while impaired cannot ascertain from the charging document whether he is subject to sentencing at Level A1 (the most serious level) or Level 5 (the least serious). That’s because the aggravating factors that lead to elevated sentencing aren’t considered elements of the offense and thus are not required to be alleged in the charging instrument. Yet because those factors can increase the maximum punishment a defendant may receive, they must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and, with the exception of prior convictions, be determined by a jury in superior court. And, for most charges of impaired driving prosecuted in superior court, the State must provide notice of its intent to seek aggravating factors. A case decided by the court of appeals last June, however, identifies an exception to this requirement for certain aggravating factors in driving while impaired prosecutions initiated in superior court.
Much has been written—and much of it by the Supreme Court—on the proper way to find aggravating factors for sentencing. After Apprendi v. New Jersey, Blakely v. Washington, and countless cases at the state level, it is of course clear that a defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to have aggravating factors proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Once sentencing factors are properly found, however, responsibility shifts back to the judge to decide what to do about them. The rules for weighing factors are as loosey-goosey as the rules for finding them are rigid.
Under G.S. 15A-1340.16(d), “[e]vidence necessary to prove an element of the offense shall not be used to prove any factor in aggravation.” The general idea behind that rule is to prevent the defendant from getting extra punishment via an aggravating factor for something that is inherent in the crime of conviction. A similar prohibition existed under Fair Sentencing, so we have a relatively large body of case law that helps us understand the rule.
Not many sentences come from the aggravated range—four percent in Fiscal Year 2013/14, according to the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission. But when you use the aggravated range, you want to make sure to do it correctly. Some recent cases offer a reminder about the proper procedure for alleging and proving aggravating factors.
Author’s Note: The opinion discussed below was withdrawn on February 4, 2014 and replaced by an opinion discussed here. How can a sentencing factor found by a judge that doubles a defendant’s maximum sentence not implicate Blakely? I pondered this question a few years ago after the court of appeals in State v. Green, … Read more
Suppose a defendant convicted of a felony has a slam dunk mitigating factor. Let’s say, for example, that he has been honorably discharged from the military, which is a statutory factor under G.S. 15A-1340.16(e). Before the defendant can present evidence of the factor (probably a DD-214) to the court, the judge stops him, saying, “No … Read more
Last July, Jamie Markham provided this refresher on aggravating factors in structured sentencing cases in which he discussed, among other provisions, the requirement that the State provide a defendant with written notice of its intent to prove aggravating factors. A reader requested that we follow up by discussing the related notice provision in G.S. 20-179(a1). … Read more
Last summer I wrote this post about amendments to the fourth grossly aggravating factor applicable to sentencing for impaired driving, namely the factor in G.S. 20-179(c)(4) that elevates punishment for driving while impaired with a child in the vehicle. Amendments effective for offenses committed on or after December 1, 2011 render this factor applicable if … Read more