10 August 2004

United States v. Martin (4th Circuit)
Are State Trial Systems Unconstitutional?

Subject: Enhancement of sentencing when a Defendant has demanded her right to a trial de novo in superior court.

[facts] Defendant was convicted of a misdemeanor in a North Carolina district court and sentenced to 60 days in jail. She exercised her absolute right to a trial de novo in superior court. While waiting for her trial she was sentenced in federal court and the misdemeanor conviction was counted against her, adding 2 points to her criminal history. Subsequently, the charge was dismissed in superior court without prejudice.

[finding] The trial court was incorrect in applying 2 points to Defendant's criminal history. The trial court should have only applied 1 point. The error is harmless because it does not change the sentence.

[reasoning] North Carolina has a fairly typical lower court - higher court dynamic wherein misdemeanors are tried in lower courts. These courts are without a record and do not provide an option for a jury. To counter these infirmities anyone tried and convicted in the lower court has an absolute right to a trial in the upper court (even if she pled guilty).

The prosecution portrays this as an appeal and asserts that 2 criminal history points should be added (for a conviction with 60 days) because an appeal does not invalidate a conviction. However, the prosecution is wrong because the higher court engages in a trial de novo rather than a review of the findings of the lower court.

The Defendant portrays this as a decision void ab initio after the Defendant calls for the exercise of her option for a trial de novo. The court rejects this because a Defendant can withdraw her demand for a trial de novo and the case would return to the lower court for imposition of the original sentence. Therefore, it is merely voidable.

Relying on the reasoning supra, the court finds the decision is voidable rather than void. Therefore, the exercise of the right to a trial de novo is actually a stay of the lower court sentence. Under sec. 4A1.1(c) criminal history points are increased by 1 point for a stayed decision. This is what should have been done in this case.

[the dicta] The court recognizes that there are constitutional problems with its decision. This sort of State trial system actually consists of a single bifurcated trial. Because the trial in the inferior court does not have full constitutional protections there is substantial doubt as to the reliability of the inferior court decision

The fact that the lower court does not allow a jury trial and that, prior to a jury trial in the superior court, this "conviction" can be counted in a federal sentencing raises serious questions as to the constitutionality of the state court systems. The constitutional questions in the inferior court are wiped out by the absolute right to a trial de novo with a jury. The fact that there are no consequences from the inferior court's adjudication makes this system constitutional. The court's interpretation of the sentencing guidelines "would seemingly constitute a significant collateral consequence."

[comment] The court's finding that (1) the sentence is stayed and its explanation that (2) in this sort of state trial system there is actually a single, bifurcated trial are directly at odds with one another. The answer here would seem to be that since it is a single, bifurcated trial which is concluded in the superior court there was no disposition at the time of federal sentencing and therefore no points should have been awarded. The fact that the superior court dismissed the case, rendering the lower court decision a nullity, is strong evidence in favor of this interpretation. It wasn't an appeal; it wasn't a void decision; it wasn't a stay; it was a trial in progress wherein no conviction or sentence had been imposed. A great advantage of the interpretation I offer is that it avoids any constitutional question.

As for the court's constitutionality conjecture, the court's interpretation is absolutely backward. The court's interpretation does not call the State systems into question - it calls the constitutionality of the criminal history points in the guidelines, as this case interprets them, into question. If the court's interpretation is correct it runs contrary to long standing (pre-guidelines) precedent which declares this sort of State system constitutional. However, a more fitting interpretation of this added criminal history point is that it imposes a punishment on a person prior to her ability to exercise her constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial. There is no doubt that if the Defendant in one of these State systems could only avail herself of the bench trial in the lower court that the system would be unconstitutional. Therefore, the actual trial takes place in the superior court. The hearing in the lower court is, in effect, a preliminary hearing. The Defendant then decides whether he will acquiesce to the decision of the constitutionally deficient lower court or exercise his right to an actual trial. Seen in this light, this court's decision actually punishes the person being sentenced in federal court for a crime of which she has not been convicted.

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