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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Trial Courts Can Resentence Defendants After Portions of Sentences Are Overturned

When a portion of a criminal defendant’s sentence is vacated, the trial court has the authority to resentence the defendant again as long as the defendant is credited for the time served under the original flawed sentence, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a Second District Court of Appeals decision that found that a trial court could not resentence Eva Christian for portions of her five-count conviction already served during her nine-year prison sentence. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that the trial court did not violate Christian’s rights against double jeopardy when the judge imposed a new sentence in 2016, after Christian had been in prison for nearly three years.

This was the second time the Supreme Court considered an appeal of Christian’s sentence for insurance fraud, making false alarms, and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Melody J. Stewart dissented with separate written opinions. Both justices wrote that Christian cannot be resentenced for an insurance fraud conviction, which carried an 18-month maximum sentence, leaving only the remaining time of her eight-year corrupt activity prison term left to be served.

Updated Law Invalidated Imposed Prison Terms
In June 2012, Christian was sentenced to terms of imprisonment on two insurance fraud counts. The trial court imposed an 18-month sentence for one, and a 36-month sentence for the other. She was also sentenced to 18-month and 12-month prison terms for making false alarms. The trial judge additionally sentenced her to nine years imprisonment for engaging in corrupt activity. The trial judge made the prison terms for the insurance and false alarm convictions run consecutively to each other, for a total of seven years, and made those terms run concurrently with the nine-year corrupt activity term for a total nine-year sentence.

In 2014, the Second District reversed the corrupt activity conviction. It ruled that the trial judge failed to consider a 2011 change in state law that reduced the maximum length of prison time for Christian’s convictions. The Second District acknowledged that its assessment of what was necessary for the prosecution to prove a corrupt activity charge differed from another state appeals court, and it requested that the Supreme Court address the conflict. The Supreme Court held the Christian case until it decided a similar issue in State v. Beverly.

After the Court decided Beverly in 2015, the Court remanded Christian’s case to the Second District. Based on Beverly, the Second District changed course and affirmed Christian’s corrupt activity conviction. The appeals court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions that the trial court had to impose the lower maximum prison terms using the new law.

Resentencing Leads to Same Total Sentence
The trial court reduced Christian’s 36-month insurance fraud sentence to one year, dropped the 18-month false alarm sentence to six months, and lowered the corrupt activity sentence to eight years. However, instead of allowing the insurance fraud sentence to run concurrently with the corrupt activity sentence, the trial judge made the two sentences run consecutively, which again resulted in a total nine-year prison term.

Christian appealed the decision, arguing the trial court did not follow the requirements of R.C. 2929.14(C)(4), which mandates a judge to make certain findings before imposing consecutive sentences.

Appeals Court Does Not Consider Merits, but Orders Reduced Prison Term
Instead of considering her argument, the Second District concluded that because of double-jeopardy concerns the trial court wrongly resentenced her for insurance fraud. The appeals court noted at the time of the appeal, she had served 31 months in prison for a charge that state law limited to 18 months.

The Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the Second District’s decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that once the appeals court vacated Christian’s first nine-year sentence, the trial court had the right to resentence her de novo and had the discretion to rearrange the original sentences to be served consecutively rather than concurrently. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the prosecutor’s appeal, but today’s decision noted that it is not addressing Christian’s claim that the trial judge did not follow the law when imposing consecutive sentences. The majority decision stated that her claim can be addressed on remand to the Second District.

Court Applies Standards Set in 2013 Decision
The prosecution argued that under the Supreme Court’s 2013 State v. Holdcroft decision, if all or a portion of the sentence is vacated based on a defendant’s direct appeal, then the original sentence should be treated as if it did not exist, Justice Fischer explained. The trial court is free to start again and impose a sentence that is permitted by law.

The opinion noted that the Court set three resentencing standards in Holdcroft. First, when a sentence is challenged on direct review, it can be modified. Second, when a portion of a prison sentence for multiple counts is declared “void,” or invalid, and the time of that sentence has not been completely served, it can be modified. Third, when the entirety of a prison sentence has been served, the defendant has an expectation of finality in the sentence, and the sentence no longer can be modified.

Christian argued that under Holdcroft, when the entirety of each count of a prison sentence has been served, the trial court  no longer can modify the sentence for that count. Since she already served more than 18 months for insurance fraud at the time her sentence was considered invalid, then the trial court had no right to modify it, she maintained.

The majority opinion stated that until the appellate process concluded or the time to appeal has expired, Christian had no expectation in the finality of her total sentence. Because portions of her original sentence were overturned during that direct appeal process, the trial court could resentence her on those portions of the sentence without violating her rights, the Court concluded.

The majority opinion stated that while the trial judge has the discretion to resentence her, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant must be given credit for the time served when resentenced or else a new sentence could violate the person’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

The Court remanded the case to the Second District to consider her argument that the trial court did not follow state law when resentencing her.

Judge Misapplied Sentencing Law, Dissent Stated
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly noted the trial court during resentencing did not take into consideration the requirements for running sentences consecutively and was focused on the goal of once again imposing a nine-year sentence. The trial court determined that Christian should receive a packaged sentence of nine years, no matter what changes the legislature made to sentences, he wrote.

A trial court cannot change its original imposition of concurrent sentences to consecutive sentences unless there is a change in the defendant’s circumstances that the court has learned. In Christian’s case, the trial court acknowledged that nothing changed in Christian’s factual circumstances, and the only thing that changed was the reduction of maximum terms authorized by the legislature.

“The true problem in this case is that the trial court failed to heed the mandate of the legislature and misapplied R.C. 2929.14(C)(4) to justify its decision,” he wrote.

Double Jeopardy Rights Would Be Violated if Resentenced, Dissent Maintained 
In her dissent, Justice Stewart wrote that by the time Christian was resentenced, she had already served in excess of the 18 months on the insurance fraud count that she could have received had the trial court imposed the correct maximum sentence in effect at the time. By imposing a 12-month sentence for insurance fraud to run consecutively with the eight-year corrupt activity sentence, the trial court violated Christian’s rights to be free from double jeopardy, she wrote.

At the time of Christian’s resentencing, the protections against double jeopardy required she receive credit for time served on the insurance fraud count. By the time the trial court resentenced her, there was no more time left on the insurance fraud charge to impose, Justice Stewart stated. Had the trial court correctly considered the double-jeopardy violation, its total sentence would amount to no more than eight years, the dissent stated.

She wrote that she would affirm the Second District’s decision, albeit for a different reason, and instruct the trial court to properly credit Christian with the time she has served on the insurance fraud charge.

2017-1691. State v. Christian, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-828.

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