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Phillips v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 1, 2016

WILLIAM PHILLIPS, JR.
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE

          Session September 20, 2016

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Knox County Nos. 102417, 100337, 106249 Scott Green, Judge

         The petitioner, William Phillips, Jr., appeals the dismissal of his petition for writ of habeas corpus/motion for Rule 36.1 correction of an illegal sentence, arguing that the trial court imposed an illegal sentence in violation of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) by altering the sentence in his negotiated plea agreement, which the trial court accepted prior to the sentencing hearing. Following our review, we affirm the judgment of the habeas court dismissing the petition.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Criminal Court Affirmed

          Gena Lewis and T. Scott Jones, Maryville, Tennessee, for the appellant, William Phillips, Jr.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Benjamin A. Ball, Senior Counsel; Charme P. Allen, District Attorney General; and Willie R. Lane, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Alan E. Glenn, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., and Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., J., joined.

          OPINION

          ALAN E. GLENN, JUDGE

         FACTS and PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On October 7, 2013, the petitioner pled guilty in the Knox County Criminal Court as a Range I offender to aggravated assault, aggravated stalking, and attempted acquisition of a controlled substance by fraud or forgery in exchange for the dismissal of his charges in a separate case and an effective ten-year sentence, with 340 days in jail followed by supervised probation. That same day, the trial court entered a preprinted "Waiver of Trial by Jury and Acceptance of Plea of Guilty Order, " in which relevant blank portions setting forth the petitioner's charges and the plea agreement had been filled in by hand.

         Because the petitioner had already served 340 days at the time of the entry of his pleas, he was released on his own recognizance pending the preparation of a presentence report and a sentencing hearing. At the February 7, 2014 sentencing hearing, at which a number of law enforcement and civilian witnesses testified about the petitioner's continued stalking of the victim, the trial court found that the petitioner had violated his conditional release and ordered that he serve the remainder of his ten-year sentence in confinement.

         Other than arguing that he should be granted probation, the petitioner raised no challenge to the sentence at the sentencing hearing and did not question the authority of the trial court to impose the sentence. The petitioner also filed no direct appeal of sentencing to this court. He later, however, filed in the trial court a Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 35 motion for reduction of sentence, which was denied following a hearing on November 21, 2014.

         On August 31, 2015, the petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Knox County Criminal Court in which he alleged that his sentence was illegal under Rule 11 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure because it did not comply with his plea agreement. The petitioner also alleged that the trial court's failure to sentence him in accordance with the negotiated plea rendered the plea agreement void because it was not "entered intelligently and knowingly." On October 6, 2015, the petitioner filed an amended petition in which he alleged that the trial court had jurisdiction over the case pursuant to Rule 36.1 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, "which provides a procedural right of habeas corpus to correct illegal sentences[.]"

         The State responded with a motion to dismiss in which it asserted that the petitioner failed to comply with the procedural requirements of a petition for writ of habeas corpus and failed to establish on the face of the record that the convicting court was without jurisdiction or the sentence expired. Among other things, the State argued that the petitioner failed to show that the trial court was without authority to impose the ten-year sentence because "[t]rial courts are empowered to revoke suspended sentences."

         In an October 7, 2015 response to the State's motion to dismiss, the petitioner, among other things: refuted the State's suggestion that the sentencing hearing had been a probation revocation hearing; asserted that his petition was governed by Rule 36.1 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, which "dispenses with the requirements of the habeas statute and requires only that the Petitioner show a 'colorable claim"; and argued that "the infirmity" of the sentence was "apparent on the face of the record[, ]" which showed that the trial court accepted the plea agreement, including the sentence of split confinement, and yet failed to enter a judgment in accordance with the plea.

         On October 27, 2015, the petitioner filed another amended petition superseding his previous petitions but incorporating by reference the attachments to those previous petitions and attaching as exhibits the relevant judgments. The petitioner again argued that the trial court illegally sentenced him in violation of Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) by altering his agreed-upon sentence. The petitioner asserted that because the trial court illegally sentenced him to serve his ten-year sentence in confinement and a sentence of split confinement was a material part of his accepted plea, he was entitled to either withdraw his guilty plea or for specific performance of the plea agreement.

         Finally, on December 16, 2015, the State filed a response to the petitions in which it agreed that the petitioner had never been placed on probation but argued that the petitioner had "in no way established that the sentence [he] received was illegal[.]" The State noted the petitioner's violations of the conditions of his release and the fact that he was, as a result, taken back into custody before the "full sentencing hearing." Although the State did not explicitly address the petitioner's claim that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sentence the petitioner differently from the plea agreement, it implied that the split confinement portion of the petitioner's plea agreement was a recommended sentence that the court declined to follow based on the petitioner's actions during his release from custody.

         On December 16, 2015, following a hearing, the habeas court denied the petition on the basis that it did not state a cognizable claim for habeas corpus relief. Specifically, the court found that the sentences were all "within the statutory range of punishment" and did not "contravene an applicable statute." Thereafter, the petitioner appealed to this court, arguing that the habeas court erred by finding that the sentence imposed by the trial court did not contravene an applicable statute, i.e. Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), under which the trial court could either accept the plea agreement, reject the plea agreement, or defer ruling on the agreement until a later time.

         ANALYSIS

         The petitioner cites State v. Soller, 181 S.W.3d 645 (Tenn. 2005), and State v. Leath, 977 S.W.2d 132 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1998), to argue that once the trial court accepted the negotiated plea agreement, it lacked jurisdiction to alter the agreed-upon sentence, rendering illegal the ten-year sentence of incarceration. The State responds by citing language in the guilty plea form and statements of the parties and the court at the guilty plea hearing to argue that the record reveals that the plea agreement left the manner of service of sentence for the trial court to determine at the sentencing hearing, pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(B). The State further argues that even if the plea agreement called for a sentence of split confinement, this would render the petitioner's judgment voidable rather than void.

         Prior to the creation of Rule 36.1 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, a petition for writ of habeas corpus was the only means to challenge an alleged illegal sentence. Since July 1, 2013, however, either the State or the defendant may file a motion pursuant to Rule 36.1, which provides in pertinent part:

(a) Either the defendant or the state may, at any time, seek the correction of an illegal sentence by filing a motion to correct an illegal sentence in the trial court in which the judgment of conviction was entered. For purposes of this rule, an illegal sentence is one that is not authorized by the applicable statutes or that directly contravenes an applicable statute.
(b) Notice of any motion filed pursuant to this rule shall be promptly provided to the adverse party. If the motion states a colorable claim that the sentence is illegal, and if the defendant is indigent and is not already represented by counsel, the trial court shall appoint counsel to represent the defendant. The adverse party shall have thirty days within which to file a written response to the motion, ...

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