The People v. Michael Thomas
Issue before the Court: For predicate felony sentencing purposes, should the court look to the date when sentence was originally imposed, even if illegal or improperly imposed, or the date of current, lawful sentence in determining whether there existed a “prior conviction”?
Held: 4-3 (Stein writing for majority; Fahey writing for dissent joined by Rivera and Wilson) the Court held that the original sentencing date controls, not the date when a lawful sentence was imposed. The effect of the holding was to render the defendant a predicate felon.
Discussion: Thomas was improperly sentenced in 1989 as a second felony offender based on two 1988 youthful offender adjudications. The 1989 convictions were then used as predicates for a 1993 second felony offender adjudication and, eventually, a persistent felony offender adjudication. In 2008 and 2011, Thomas was resentenced on the 1989 convictions as a first felony offender. He then argued that those resentencing “unsequenced” the convictions for purposes of predicate sentencing.
Decades of precedent supported defendant’s argument that “sentence” as used in Penal Law § 70.06(1)(b)(ii) – as well as the other predicate sentencing statutes – meant lawful sentence and, therefore, meant the resentencing date controlled. Even the Court of Appeals’ past decisions (namely Boyer (2013) and Thomas (2016)) supported that view, albeit those cases carved out exceptions for Sparber resentencings and VOP resentencings. Yet, the Court held otherwise, finding that the legislative intent in using “sentencing” and not including “resentencing” in the statute indicated that the original, unlawful sentence was the appropriate date to use. According to the majority, that result comported with the legislative purpose and promoted clarity and fairness.
The dissent believed otherwise, arguing that a unlawful and vacated sentence was entitled to no legal effect. “Sentence,” the dissent argued, must mean a lawful and valid sentence.
CAL Observes: This case highlights how activist and anti-defendant the Court of Appeals has become. This area of law had long since been settled by all of the Appellate Divisions with seeming support from the Court’s own decisions. There was no conflict or split worthy of the Court’s review. Yet, the Court showed little difficulty (aside from the 4-to-3 vote) in casting those decades of decisions aside.
The bases for the Court’s decision are tenuous. To be sure, in one statute (dealing with appeals), the legislature distinguished between a sentencing and a resentencing, but in every other statute, governing every aspect of sentencing, the legislature just referred to “sentencing” despite the clear applicability of those statutes to resentencings. Moreover, the new rule does not promote clarity or minimize litigation. What constitutes an illegal sentence that is valid for predicate sentencing purposes? Can it be a proceeding where defendant is not present? Can it be a proceeding where the court neglects to pronounce the sentence? Or is it simply anything that the court clerk decides to label a sentencing regardless of who was present or what was said, as long as a commitment order was generated by the clerk at the end of the proceeding? Those issues now all await litigation. In addition, this decision will not stop the efforts to unsequence prior convictions. Instead of filing a C.P.L. § 440.20 motion for resentencing (as Thomas did here), he could have moved under C.P.L. § 440.10 to vacate the plea. After all, surely counsel was ineffective in advising him that he was a predicate offender based on his youthful offender adjudications and surely Mr. Thomas’ plea was unknowing and involuntary as he did not understand the actual sentencing range that he faced upon conviction.