State v. Soto, Jr., Minn.S.Ct., 10/22/2014. Here’s how Justice Lillehaug begins this sentencing opinion:
In sentencing, district courts have a great deal of discretion. Rarely do we hold that it has been abused. But rarely is not never. This is such a rare case.
This is not going to go well for Mr. Soto, Jr. An odd assortment of four justices – Lillehaug, Dietzen, Stras, and Wright, team up to make sure that Mr. Soto, Jr. does his twelve years for first degree criminal sexual conduct. The majority concludes that the trial court abused its discretion by placing Mr. Soto, Jr. on probation; it reaches this result mostly by flat out disagreeing with the conclusions of the trial court and by fly specking the trial court’s verbiage. For instance, the trial court found that Mr. Soto, Jr. was “amenable to probation” instead of finding that he was “particularly amenable to probation.” Really.
Justice Lillehaug reels off a list of prior opinions where the court’s language about amenability to probation included the adverb, “particularly”. Justice Page, joined by Chief Justice Gildea and Justice Anderson, point out, however that the court has never previously required that the trial court “say the magic words” in order to avoid getting reversed. This is just more trial court bashing from a court that only has to take cases when it wants to do so, has no ninety day deadline for issuing opinions, and can take forever to fine tune its verbiage.
To support its determination that Mr. Soto, Jr. was amenable to probation, the trial court pointed to these factors: the psychosexual evaluation concluded that Mr. Soto, Jr. was an appropriate candidate for its outpatient treatment program; Mr. Soto’s age (37); the lack of very many “serious crimes” on his record; the role that alcohol played in the offense; Mr. Soto’s respectful attitude in court; the offense was an outlier, and he had some family support. The majority then systematically takes nearly all of those factors apart, not because they are improper factors to consider in determining amenability but because of what the trial court did with them.
Start with the psychosexual evaluation. The “mere fact” that the report reached a particular treatment recommendation “does not necessarily justify departing.” Fair enough had the majority stopped there. But, there’s more. Even though it’s not the job of the psychosexual evaluator to weigh in on whether to place Mr. Soto, Jr. on probation, that’s apparently exactly what the majority wanted the evaluator to do. Not having done so leads the majority pretty much to toss the evaluation all together:
There is a large and crucial step missing between saying that Soto is an appropriate candidate for outpatient treatment and concluding that he is “particularly amenable to individualized treatment in a probationary setting.
The majority conceded that in general the other factors that the trial court recited – age, prior record, attitude while in court, and support of friends and family – are all relevant to determining if a defendant is particularly amenable to probation. Again it just didn’t like the conclusions that the trial court drew from those factors. Take age. At 37, the trial court thought that Mr. Soto, Jr. still had an opportunity to correct his behavior. The majority, however, rejected this observation for two reasons: “age” means “young, like twenty-something; and if a defendant gets a break for being 37, then where do you draw the break line? Sixty may be the new forty but thirty-seven won’t get you a departure.
The majority says that prior record, by itself, is not a proper basis for departure, but it’s okay for the trial court to rely on Mr. Soto’s prior record to support its belief that he could correct some of his behaviors. But, again, the majority just didn’t agree with that observation by the trial court and so, as Justice Page points out, the majority substitutes its conclusion for that of the trial court.
Although the trial court didn’t mention remorse or cooperation with the police, the majority does not say, as the state wanted it to say, that expressing remorse is a prerequisite to finding that a defendant is particularly amenable to probation. Being respectful in court is a legitimate factor but the majority didn’t think it outweighed “other relevant considerations.” The majority agreed with the trial court that Mr. Soto’s family support and his status as a father are relevant factors in determining amenability. While these facts cannot, themselves, justify a departure, they can support a finding of amenability.
The majority was annoyed that the trial court had not addressed either Mr. Soto’s culpability or whether public safety would be served by departing. Again, Justice Page points out that the court had never required a trial court to address these factors; rather, the could has only said that such factors are relevant considerations. The majority does not hold that trial court must consider culpability and public safety, but clearly the majority is signaling to the trial bench that it would look favorably on plugging both culpability and public safety into the algorithm for determining amenability, and, best of all worlds, adding those factors to hold down the number of departures.
The dissent’s view of all this is best summed up with this observation:
While another trial court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the “ ‘rare case’ warranting our intervention with the [trial] court’s discretion.” State v. Bertsch, 707 N.W.2d 660, 668 (Minn. 2006). In effect, here, the court improperly “substitute[s] [its] own judgment for that of the trial court.” Spain, 590 N.W.2d at 88.