Tuesday, August 26, 2008

State ex rel. Doe v. Moore[1]

Opinion handed down August 26, 2008[1]
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Missouri Supreme Court held: (1) trial courts may unilaterally modify the terms of a defendant’s probation, even if those modifications include additional requirements that were not included at the time the defendant agreed to the plea agreement; and, (2) changes imposed by the court that could not have been required at the time of the defendant’s guilty plea may be imposed during the defendant’s probation. Doing so would not violate the constitutional protection against ex post facto legislation.

I. Facts & Holding[2]

On March 6, 2006, the defendant pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree.[3] In the plea agreement, the defendant noted that he allowed himself to be alone with a girl and engaged in physical conduct that was inappropriate given their ages.[4] On July 3, 2006, pursuant to the plea agreement, the trial court suspended imposition of sentence and ordered five years probation with conditions.[5]

Effective June 6, 2006, Missouri House Bill 1698 modified several sections of the Missouri law, including Mo. Rev. Stat. 589.400.1(2), which defined the offenses requiring registration as a “sex offender.” It was modified to include endangering the welfare of a child if the endangerment was sexual in nature.[6] Changes to the statute, as well as several others regarding supervision of those found to have violated “sexual offenses,” became effective after the defendant’s guilty plea, but before his sentencing.[7]

When the defendant was originally sentenced, he was not required to be supervised as a sex offender. Then, in May, 2007, the trial court added several conditions to the probation. One required the defendant to be supervised as a registered sex offender.[8] The defendant contested the imposition of the new conditions and the Missouri Supreme Court issued a preliminary writ preventing the trial court judge from enforcing the modified conditions.[9]

II. Legal Background

Missouri statutory law states that circuit courts have the power to place persons convicted of any offense, except as otherwise provided, on probation.[10] These courts are empowered to determine and implement any conditions of probation deemed necessary to ensure the successful completion of probation.[11] Furthermore, the court may modify or enlarge the conditions of probation at any time prior to the expiration or termination of the probationary term.[12]

The trial court has judicial discretion to modify or change the conditions of probation.[13] A litigant is only entitled to relief from the trial court’s decision if the trial court abused its discretion.[14] In evaluating whether the trial court abused its discretion, the reviewing court looks to the factual basis for the initial offense and the recommendations of the probation office.[15] In this case, the Court held that (1) given the nature of Doe’s offense; (2) the factual basis for the offense; and (3) the repeated recommendations of the probation office for a more stringent supervision regimen, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by requiring Doe to be supervised as a “sex offender.”[16]

The defendant also complained that the modifications to his probation violated Article I, Section 13 of the Missouri Constitution because the modified conditions of his probation apply the Missouri House Bill 1698 probation provisions retrospectively to him.[17] This bill imposed much more stringent monitoring requirements for “sex offenders.” The Court, however, rejected this argument as well,[18] ruling that the trial court had the authority to modify the conditions of Doe’s probation in any way it deemed “reasonably necessary to ensure that the defendant [did] not again violate the law.”[19] Missouri House Bill 1698 may have imposed more stringent requirements for the supervision of “sex offenders,” but the trial court already possessed the requisite authority to impose the same type of requirements.[20]

III. Commentary

In this case, the Missouri Supreme Court reaffirmed the trial courts’ ability to modify or change the conditions of a defendant’s probation at their discretion. In many cases, defendants are given probation in lieu of more serious penalties available under the law. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices generally offer suggestions as to the terms of these probationary periods. However, the trial court is the entity empowered to place individuals on probation and to regulate the conditions of that probation.[21]

The trial court is also empowered to modify or change the conditions of probation at any time prior to the expiration or termination of the probationary term.[22] The court may add to the conditions of a defendant’s probation or require him or her to comply with additional requirements “reasonably necessary to ensure that the defendant will not again violate the law.”[23] Doe’s application for a writ of prohibition in this case results from a misunderstanding of the court’s power in probationary circumstances. He argued that, once the court had set the conditions of his probation, it could not unilaterally change them to impose additional requirements. This argument, though seemingly persuasive, misconstrues the purpose of probation.

Probationary periods imposed by the courts are an alternative to imprisonment that offer the defendant a chance to escape more serious penalties by demonstrating adherence to the law. The justice system is willing to give such defendants a “second chance” insofar as it can be assured that the defendant will not violate the law again. It is reasonable, therefore, to permit the courts to set the parameters of this second chance and the defendant cannot later complain that the requirements are too stringent. The defendant has been given a second chance and, absent abuse of discretion, the trial court is permitted to modify or change the conditions of probation as it sees fit to ensure that the defendant continues as a law-abiding citizen.

- Robert J. Morrison

[1] 265 S.W.3d 278 (Mo. 2008).
[2] Id. at 279.
[3] Id. The defendant was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, in violation of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 568.045 (2007).
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 589.400.1(2) (2007).
[7] See, e.g., Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 589.042, 566.147, and 566.149 (2007).
[8] Moore, 265 S.W.3d at 279.
[9] Id. at *1.
[10] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 559.100 (2000).
[11] Id.
[12] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 559.021 (2000).
[13] State v. Welsh, 853 S.W.2d 466, 469 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993).
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Moore, 265 S.W.3d at 279.
[17] Id.
[18] Moore, 265 S.W.3d at 279.
[19] Id. See also Mo. Rev. Stat. § 559.021.
[20] Id.
[21] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 559.100.
[22] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 559.021.
[23] Id.