Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cathcart v. State (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed February 9, 2007—Opinion by Judge Alan Wilner

Robin Cathcart was convicted by a jury of first degree assault and false imprisonment after brutally beating his former girlfriend and thereafter precluding her from leaving her apartment to seek medical assistance. For the first degree assault, the court imposed a sentence of ten years. For the common law offense of false imprisonment, the court sentenced Cathcart to life imprisonment, consecutive to the ten year sentence for assault, with all but ten years suspended. No period of probation was imposed with respect to the suspended part of the life sentence.

Cathcart appealed arguing that, under the circumstances of the case, the imposition of a life sentence for the common law offense of false imprisonment was unconstitutionally disproportionate and therefore illegal. Noting that the maximum sentence in Maryland for kidnapping – an aggravated form of false imprisonment – was only thirty years and that the permissible sentence for false imprisonment in other States ranged from six months to ten years, he complained that holding the victim in her apartment for up to three hours was grossly disproportionate and therefore cruel and unusual.

The Court of Special Appeals concluded that the sentence was effectively one of ten years, rather than life, given the fact that no period of probation was imposed with respect to the suspended part of the life sentence and that Cathcart could therefore never serve more than ten years on that sentence. It affirmed the trial court’s judgment reasoning that, under the circumstances, a sentence of ten years for false imprisonment was not unconstitutionally disproportionate.

In his petition for certiorari, Cathcart maintained that a sentence of life imprisonment, with all but ten years suspended with no probation, constituted an illegal sentence, but the nature of his complaint differed. Carthcart argued that, in the absence of a period of probation attached to the suspended part of the sentence, the effect of the sentence, as articulated and when considered together with the ten year sentence for assault, is to preclude any parole consideration for the entire duration of the twenty years. Because the term of confinement includes a life sentence, parole eligibility is calculated on each sentence separately and then aggregated. Because first degree assault is a crime of violence, he must serve five years before he becomes eligible for parole on that sentence (the greater of one-half of the sentence imposed for the violent crime or one-fourth of the aggregate sentence.) If the sentence imposed for false imprisonment is treated as a life sentence, even though all but ten years is suspended, he would have to serve at least 15 years before he becomes eligible for parole on that sentence. That alone would make the entire part of the false imprisonment sentence ordered executed by the court immune from parole. Further, when the 5 year minimum on the assault is aggregated with the 15 year minimum on the false imprisonment, under the structure of the Circuit Court, he would not be eligible for parole for 20 years and that, as a result, the entire 20 year aggregate sentence he received would be a non-parolable one. Cathcart argued that the sentence was illegal on two fronts, (1) it is cruel and unusual to impose a non-parolable sentence of 15 years for false imprisonment, and (2) by precluding the prospect of parole in the absence of any authorizing statute, the court has effectively intruded upon the discretion of the Parole Commission, thereby exercising an Executive function in violation of the separation of powers principle enunciated in Article 8 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

As there was no challenge to the 10 year sentence imposed for first degree assault, the Court focused on the sentence for false imprisonment and set forth the options available in sentencing a defendant for a crime that carries a prison sentence. The court may

(1) impose a sentence up to the maximum term allowed and, by stating no contrary ruling, implicitly direct that the entire sentence be executed; (2) suspend the imposition or execution of sentence and place the defendant on probation on the conditions that the court considers proper. This section provides two options: the court may defer the actual imposition of a sentence in favor of probation, or it may impose a sentence and suspend the execution of all of it in favor of the probation. In either event, so long as the probation is not revoked, the defendant will not be incarcerated at all. If the probation is revoked, the court may then proceed either to impose the sentence that it had deferred or direct execution of all or any part that it had previously imposed but suspended; (3) impose a sentence for a specified time and provide that a lesser time be served in confinement or suspend the remainder of the sentence and order probation for a time. If the court chooses the latter approach, it must impose the full sentence it intends to impose; and (4) impose a sentence of custodial confinement or imprisonment as a condition of probation. The split sentence option may be used in connection with a life sentence; however, there must be a period of probation attached to the suspended part of the sentence.

Failure to impose a period of probation does not necessarily make the sentence illegal but simply precludes it from having the status of a split sentence under CP § 6-222. Because the effect of the omission is to limit the period of incarceration to the unsuspended part of the sentence, that becomes, in law, the effective sentence. If the court has chosen not to impose a period of probation and thereby limited the period of incarceration to the unsuspended portion of the sentence, the effect of remanding the case for it to do so would be tantamount to allowing it to increase the sentence from that fixed number of years to a life sentence, and our jurisdiction does not allow for that. Consequently, the matter was remanded to the Circuit Court to amend the sentence imposed on the false imprisonment conviction to imprisonment for 10 years, consecutive to the sentence imposed on the first degree assault conviction.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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