Tuesday, January 27, 2009

State v. Teer[1]

Opinion handed down January 27, 2009[1]
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri invalidated the sentence received by a defendant convicted of manslaughter because after the case had been submitted to the jury, the state amended the charges to allege that the defendant was also a prior felony offender, in contravention of statutory procedure. Because the prior offender status led to a longer sentence, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that the action constituted prejudicial error and reversed the sentencing.

I. Facts & Holding[2]

In 1994, Michael Teer killed four people and injured a fifth while allegedly operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol.[3] The jury returned a guilty verdict and recommended a sentence of ten months for each of the four involuntary manslaughter charges and eight months for the assault charge. While the case was submitted to the jury, the state under Missouri Rule of Criminal Procedure 23.06 amended its allegations to allege that defendant was previously convicted of felony stealing.

The court found that Mr. Teer was a prior offender under 556.021 and was not entitled to jury sentencing. The trial court then sentenced the defendant to consecutive four-year terms for each count of manslaughter and a four-year term for the assault charge – sixteen years longer than the sentence returned by the jury.

A protracted appeal followed. On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed the conviction.[4] Ruling on the defendant’s motion for post-conviction relief, however, the Supreme Court of Missouri remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of ineffective assistance of counsel.[5] The trial court found that there was effective assistance of counsel and imposed the same sentence. Once again, Mr. Teer appealed his sentence to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The majority first noted that the statutory authority set up the procedural standards for alleging prior offender status. The majority found that because there were two different sentences imposed, there was prejudicial error. Because the defendant was prejudiced by submission of the prior offender status, the Court held that the submission of the prior conviction after the case was given to the jury was prejudicial error and reversed the sentencing finding.

In a concurring opinion,[6] Judge Zell Fischer noted that the Court was overturning a trend in the judiciary which encouraged a lax attitude toward the procedure of prior offender status. He wrote to emphasize the importance of following the legislatively mandated procedure and to note the specific case law precedent that was being overturned.[7]

Judge Breckenridge’s dissenting opinion argued that the procedural framework of the prior offender statute never specified what the result of noncompliance would be, making the statute non-mandatory. [8] Therefore, the case was controlled by Missouri’s “no harm, no foul” statute, and noncompliance was neither prejudicial nor reversible error.

II. Legal Background

Missouri’s statutory law for sentencing demonstrates policy aimed at preventing recidivism. Under Chapter 558, if a prior-offender defendant is convicted, they are to be sentenced by the judge and not the jury.[9] While the Supreme Court of the United States has held that there is no constitutional right to a jury sentencing,[10] the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that there are procedural due process rights afforded to the defendant and a right to be heard when determining prior offender status.[11]

Chapter 558 complies with this due process requirement in many ways.[12] At issue in Teer was subsection (2), which provides that “the facts shall be pleaded, established and found prior to submission to the jury outside of its hearing.”[13] However, under the Missouri Rules of Criminal Procedure, “any information may be amended or any information may be substituted for an indictment at any time before verdict or finding if (a) No additional or different offense is charged, and (b) A defendant's substantial rights are not thereby prejudiced.”[14] Missouri courts have long held that the determination of prior offender status does not constitute a new offense.[15] The only recourse for a defendant is to allege that 23.01(b), the “substantive rights” provision of the rule, was violated.

This standard mirrors the prejudicial error standard of review. Under Chapter 545, a judgment is not to be disturbed when there is a “defect or imperfection which does not tend to the prejudice of the substantial rights of the defendant upon the merits.”[16]

Prior to Teer, courts largely declined to find a substantive rights violation due to procedural defects created by amendment of an indictment to include prior offender status. Missouri courts have held that amending prior to jury selection,[17] on the day of trial,[18] or during trial after the prior charge had a final disposition have all not been prejudicial.[19] The high water mark for judicial laxity towards the procedure of prior offense hearings came in Street v. Missouri, where the prior offender status was not alleged until the conviction had come up on appeal.[20] There, the appeals court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court to allow the state to prove the prior offender status of the defendant and resentence him.[21]

III. Commentary

To the casual observer, it may seem that the determination of prior offender status is mere formality, as the determination seems to be more of an administrative search. However, there are recorded cases where the state has failed to meet the burden of proof on the issue.[22] The defendant does have some interest in the procedural process of the determination hearing even if his or her chance of prevailing is unlikely.

While the court ultimately held Chapter 558 was violated, a persuasive argument could be made that the procedure is constitutionally mandated. As mentioned earlier, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a defendant is afforded due process rights during the prior offender determination hearing. Therefore, if the state is required to prove the prior charge beyond a reasonable doubt, can a defendant really receive that process after he or she has already been convicted of a crime?

If the conception of procedural due process is to ensure that the innocent receive proper procedure in the adjudication of criminal charges, the state can short circuit this by waiting to allege the prior offender status after conviction. The defendant ceases to be innocent, and it may be easier for the court to give more deference to the state.

It is bedrock criminal law that the courts must take steps to remove considerations of prior convictions from the determination of guilt in the main phase as it would “corrupt” the process. Turned around, it seems that in the determination of prior offender status, the guilt of the main phase should be removed from corrupting the determination.

For the defense bar, Teer, may prove to be an invaluable tool. It may be the first in a line of many cases where the Supreme Court of Missouri chooses to adhere strictly to the procedural order of criminal hearings. This outcome is unlikely. First, Teer found itself decided with a split court. Second, Michael Teer was able to show the two differing sentences from the court’s error. Subsequent defendants may not have such an easy proof hurdle to overcome in regard to prejudice.

For the lower appellate courts, Teer is a wake-up call. Street and its companions showed a laissez fair attitude toward the procedure. Teer sends a clear message, that at all hearings, regardless of how routine, the statutory procedure must be followed.

- Brian T. Bear

[1] 275 S.W.3d 258 (Mo. 2009).
[2] Id. at 260-62.
[3] Michael Teer was charged and convicted under the manslaughter and assault statutes. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.024; Id. at § 565.060.1(4).
[4] State v. Teer, 959 S.W.2d 930 (Mo. Ct. App. 1998).
[5] Teer v. State, 198 S.W.3d 667 (Mo. Ct. App. 2006).
[6] Id. at 263-65.
[7] Judge Fischer noted five cases he saw the majorities opinion overturning. State v. Jennings, 815 S.W.2d 434 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991); State v. McGowan, 774 S.W.2d 855 (Mo. Ct. App. 1989); State v. Tincher, 797 S.W.2d 794 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990); State v. Hinkle, 987 S.W.2d 11 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999); State v. Wynn, 666 S.W.2d 862 (Mo. Ct. App. 1984); State v. Golatt, 81 S.W.3d 640 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002).
[8] Id. at 265-68.
[9] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.018; See also Id. at § 558.016 (dealing with prior and repeat misdemeanor offenders).
[10] McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 93 (1986).
[11] Camillo v. Armontrout, 938 F.2d 879 (8th Cir. 1991) (The defendant has a right to be present at the prior offender hearing).
[12] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.021. For instance, the defendant is “accorded full rights of confrontation and cross-examination, with the opportunity to present evidence, at such hearings,” Id. at §558.021(4).
[13] Id. at § 558.021(2).
[14] Mo. R. Crim. Pro. 23.01.
[15] See State v. Street, 735 S.W.2d 371, 373-74 (Mo. Ct. App. 1987).
[16] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 545.030(18).
[17] State v. Vann ,7 S.W.3d 407 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).
[18] State v. Green, 812 S.W.2d 779 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991).
[19] State v. Stapleton, 661 S.W.2d 620 (Mo. Ct. App. 1983).
[20] Street, 735 S.W.2d at 373.
[21] Id. at 373-74.
[22] Vickers v. State, 956 S.W.2d 405 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997) cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1125. In that case, the state alleged a prior forgery and stealing charge but could only find proof of the stealing charge.