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State v. Trent

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 3, 2017


          May 24, 2017 Session Heard at Tennessee Technological University [1]

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Criminal Appeals Criminal Court for Claiborne County No. 2014-CR-1918 John McAfee, Judge by Interchange.

         Kevin E. Trent pled guilty to one count of vehicular homicide by intoxication. He was sentenced by agreement as a Range I standard offender to eight years with the manner of service to be determined by the trial court after a hearing. The trial court subsequently ordered the Defendant to serve his sentence in confinement. On direct appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court's ruling and, additionally, affirmatively ordered the Defendant to be placed on full probation. We granted the State's application for permission to appeal to review the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision to reverse the trial court's order that the Defendant serve his sentence in confinement and to affirmatively order that the Defendant be placed on full probation. We agree with the Court of Criminal Appeals that the trial court failed to make sufficient findings for the appellate courts to review the sentence with a presumption of reasonableness. Moreover, our review of the record reveals it is inadequate to conduct an independent review of the sentence imposed by the trial court. As a result, we also hold that the record is not sufficient to support the Court of Criminal Appeals' modification of the Defendant's sentence to order full probation. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals, vacate the sentencing determination of the trial court, and remand this matter to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed; Remanded to the Trial Court

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Nicholas W. Spangler, Assistant Attorney General; Lori Phillips-Jones, District Attorney General; and Graham Wilson, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellant, the State of Tennessee.

          Lief Jeffers, District Public Defender; Robert Scott (on appeal and at hearing) and La Tasha Wassom (at hearing), Assistant District Public Defenders, Jacksboro, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kevin E. Trent.

          Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.



         Factual and Procedural Background

         While driving his three-quarter-ton pick-up truck on May 3, 2012, Kevin E. Trent ("the Defendant"), struck a vehicle being driven by the victim, Karen Freeman. Ms. Freeman eventually died from the injuries she sustained in the collision. In January 2015, the Defendant pled guilty to one count of vehicular homicide resulting from the fact that he was intoxicated at the time of the collision, a Class B felony. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-213(a)(2), (b)(2) (2010). At the plea hearing, the State and the Defendant stipulated "that Kevin E. Trent, on or about May 3rd, 2012, in Claiborne County, Tennessee, did unlawfully, feloniously and recklessly, as the proximate result of Kevin E. Trent's intoxication, as set forth in 55-10-401, kill Karen Freeman by the operation of a motor vehicle, in violation of 39-13-213." Pursuant to the plea agreement, the Defendant was sentenced as a standard offender to a Range I sentence of eight years with the manner of service to be determined by the trial court after a hearing. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court heard the following evidence.

         Judy McGeorge, the victim's mother, testified about the devastating effects of her daughter's death. She explained that, after the May 3, 2012 collision, her daughter remained in the hospital until July 17, 2012, at which time she was transferred to a nursing home. The victim died in the nursing home over a year later, in October 2013. After the collision, the victim was unable to walk or speak. The victim had four children at the time of her death.

         Peggy Holt testified that she was the manager at the Springdale Pic N Pay where the Defendant was a regular customer. She recalled that, on the day of the accident, the Defendant "almost hit the canopy pole that is right in front of the store" while he was driving. This occurred sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon. The parties stipulated that the accident involving Ms. Freeman occurred at approximately 3:00 that afternoon.

          Ms. Holt also testified that, on previous occasions when she spoke with the Defendant after he had driven to the store, "he was not very attentive, just kind of stared, slow speech, slurred kind of when [she] spoke with him."

         Rick Leonard testified that he was a good friend of the Defendant and had been for six or seven years. Mr. Leonard stated that the Defendant had expressed remorse for having killed the victim. He also stated that he saw the Defendant about three times a week and that he never noticed the Defendant having slurred or slow speech. Mr. Leonard acknowledged that he would not ride in a vehicle that the Defendant was driving because he considered it dangerous due to the Defendant's physical limitations.[2]

         Tim Trent, the Defendant's father, described the Defendant as "a real good kid, he's always been a hard worker." He had never known the Defendant to engage in illegal behavior or alcohol or drug abuse. He was very comfortable riding with the Defendant while the Defendant was driving. He reiterated that the Defendant was remorseful about the accident. He explained that the Defendant's reportedly slurred speech could have been caused by the Defendant having "a dip in, " stating that, when the Defendant had "a dip in, " he "can't hardly understand" the Defendant. Mr. Trent explained that, due to his disabilities, the Defendant needed assistance with his personal hygiene. He also stated that he could accommodate the Defendant if the Defendant were ordered to serve his sentence on house arrest.

         On cross-examination, Mr. Trent acknowledged that the accident was caused by the Defendant crossing three lanes of traffic and hitting the victim's vehicle head-on.

         In response to questions from the court, Mr. Trent described the modifications that the Defendant had made to his guns in order to keep hunting.

         The Defendant testified that he graduated from high school in 2003. Thereafter, he worked a forty-hour a week job and also mowed 42 yards a week. He stated that he drank alcohol only rarely and that he tried marijuana once, which made him violently ill. He never took drugs that he was not prescribed.

         In 2005, he had an accident while riding his motorcycle that resulted in the loss of both of his arms below the elbow and his left leg. In spite of these physical limitations, he was able to drive without modifications to his truck. Although he had prosthetic devices, he did not use them while driving. He advised the department of motor vehicles about his physical limitations and was able to renew his driver's license without restrictions. Other than his motorcycle accident and the accident that was the subject of his guilty plea, he had had no other accidents.

         The Defendant stated that, prior to the accident that was the subject of his plea, he had never been arrested.

         After his motorcycle accident, the Defendant was prescribed Oxycodone and Xanax. The Oxycodone was dosed at 30 milligrams and the Xanax was dosed at one milligram. He took these medications as prescribed: the Oxycodone four times a day and the Xanax twice a day. He did not think that his medications impaired his driving.

         Asked about the accident that ended the victim's life, the Defendant stated that he had no memory of it or of the three weeks preceding it. Asked about how he felt about the harm that he had caused, the Defendant testified, "I'm-I don't know how to explain it. I feel so bad, I have nightmares about every night. I-I just feel terrible. I just wish I could take it back. I wish it had been me instead of her. I'd give anything."

         On cross-examination, the Defendant stated that his doctor had told him that it was okay to drive while taking his medications as prescribed. He could not remember his doctor's name. He denied that his bottle of Oxycodone cautioned him not to drive while taking the medication. The Defendant acknowledged that, on occasion, when his pain was particularly bad, he would take an extra pill after getting home so that he could sleep. He denied taking more medication than prescribed while he was driving. He admitted to having driven "like three times" since the 2012 accident. He also admitted that, since the 2012 accident, he had been prescribed and was taking Oxymorphone, Oxycodone, Zantac, and Zanaflex. He explained that the Oxymorphone was an "extended release" pain reliever and, thus, he was now taking two pain relievers. He stated that the last time he drove was approximately during the spring of 2013 because he did not have a vehicle. He maintained, however, that it was safe for him to drive even while taking his current medications.

         On redirect examination, the Defendant acknowledged that he had lost his driver's license after pleading guilty in 2015 and that he could not drive anyone's vehicle for that reason.

         The trial court addressed the Defendant and stated, "I'm assuming they drew your blood at the accident. And then that's where they saw these prescription medications were above therapeutic levels. Do you understand that?" The Defendant responded, "Yes." During argument, the Defendant's lawyer stated that the Defendant's "level was point two-it was over the therapeutic range in Oxycodone. He was in therapeutic range on the Xanax." Neither the State nor the Defendant proffered expert testimony or laboratory results at the sentencing hearing.[3]

          The court also asked the Defendant whether there were any warnings on the labels of his Oxycodone and Xanax bottles. The Defendant replied, "It said it may cause drowsiness." The court then asked, "Does it tell you not to drive?" The Defendant responded, "No. I talked to my doctor about it."

         The presentence report, which was admitted into evidence without objection, indicates that, in his general sessions arrest affidavit completed after the accident, Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Bobby Brooks described the accident as occurring after the Defendant "crossed the center line on U.S. Hwy 25E, striking the vehicle being driven by Karen Freeman . . . ." The presentence report also indicates that the Defendant explained to the investigator who was preparing the report that the Zanaflex medication he was currently taking was a muscle relaxant.

After considering the proof before it, the trial court ruled as follows:
All right. Well, let me just go through and summarize just a little bit.
Of course, Ms. Freeman passed away, and her mother testified here today, a very sweet lady, and got a-got a pretty good picture and image of Ms. Freeman, and I looked at the pictures and the photographs. She's a very beautiful lady, four children, just appeared to be full of life.
We do know that at the time of the accident, she was severely injured, was at UT approximately six weeks, she was in the nursing home for a year and a half thereafter and passed away on October 9, 2013, severe brain injuries, she couldn't talk, she couldn't walk, she couldn't feed herself, she couldn't breathe on her own, obviously very severe injuries and-and undoubtedly suffered at the last part-last few days of her life- the last few months or weeks.
Peggy Holt testified. She said that she-and I think that if I remember this correctly, six, seven times that she knew of the defendant on those occasions, he appeared to have slurred speech because she'd have to go out to the vehicle and to get money because of his handicap. On the day of the accident a little-at lunch or a little after lunch, she said she witnessed him there at the gas station and he nearly struck the canopy pole that was there. The accident occurred, we know, and it was agreed to when I asked the trooper a moment ago about 3:05 that afternoon.
Mr. Leonard testified which is a friend of the defendant here in this case. They had been friends about six or seven years, and-but the one note that I would say, he said he was a really good person, a kind person, and again, I'm summarizing and-but he did say-and I made a note to the fact that he wouldn't ride with him because it appeared to be a dangerous situation, and he was very candid about his handicap as the reason why he didn't do that.
Mr. Trent, the defendant's father, testified. Seemed to be a very genuine man and should-should be given credit, he stuck with his son for all these years after the motorcycle accident where he lost his limbs, made modifications to his limbs [sic] so he could hunt. Apparently, hunting is an important part of their life, and made modifications. And I think the district attorney has noted that there were never any modifications made to the vehicle as far as his ability to drive, but they appear to be very extensive modifications to hunt, even to dove hunt. I understand with other types of hunting but with dove hunting, you have to be moving with a shotgun and so, they made accommodations. It appeared even from the-even from his dad's testimony that his son was a very independent person, he said, and continued to mow, not as much, I think, prior-and after the motorcycle accident, and we do know that he was driving and owned a three-quarter ton Chevy pickup truck, four doors. ...

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