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State v. Panchikal

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

June 5, 2019


          Session January 8, 2019

          Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 17-02115 Chris Craft, Judge

         The Defendant, Sterling Panchikal, caused a traffic accident which resulted in one death and several injuries. She entered guilty pleas to reckless homicide, three counts of reckless endangerment, and possession of marijuana. The Defendant sought but was denied judicial diversion for her offenses, and she was sentenced to six years of probation, with thirty days to be served incarcerated. On appeal, she argues that the trial court was mistaken about the nature of one of the offenses to which she was pleading guilty and that the trial court erred in denying diversion. Because the record reflects that the trial court believed that the Defendant was pleading guilty to vehicular homicide as a result of reckless conduct rather than reckless homicide, we vacate the judgments and the denial of diversion, and we remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal Court Vacated; Case Remanded

          Jason D. Ballenger (on appeal), Memphis, Tennessee, and Juni Ganguli and Laurie Hall (at trial), Memphis, Tennessee, for the Appellant, Sterling Panchikal.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Robert W. Wilson, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Abby Wallace, Assistant District Attorney General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

          John Everett Williams, P.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Camille R. McMullen and J. Ross Dyer, JJ., joined.




         The accident at issue took place on the morning of the Defendant's seventeenth birthday, after she had consumed intoxicants on the previous night. The facts were introduced during a hearing which served both as a guilty plea hearing and a sentencing hearing. During the plea portion of the hearing, the prosecutor summarized the circumstances of the offense by stating that the Defendant had veered off the roadway, crossed the median, smashed through a cable barrier, and struck an oncoming vehicle head-on, resulting in the death of Ms. Alejandra Sanchez Ponce. Ms. Sanchez Ponce's daughter, Ms. Araceli Rubio Sanchez, was airlifted from the scene with critical injuries. The Defendant's vehicle also struck a second car, resulting in non-life-threatening injuries to its three occupants, Ms. Mayra Herrera Monteil and two children. A third oncoming vehicle was struck with debris from the accident.

         The prosecutor noted that law enforcement found a pink bag in the Defendant's vehicle and that inside the bag was marijuana, a marijuana grinder, a glass pipe, electronic scales, and a pill bottle. Also located in the vehicle were two bottles of vodka. One of the bottles was broken, and the other had been opened and was partially empty. A toxicology report showed the presence of a small amount of marijuana in the Defendant's system at the time. Her blood also tested positive for citalopram and alprazolam[1] but was negative for the presence of alcohol.

         The Defendant stood indicted for the reckless vehicular homicide of Ms. Sanchez Ponce, the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon of Ms. Rubio Sanchez, the aggravated assault by means of serious bodily injury of Ms. Rubio Sanchez, the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon of Ms. Herrera Monteil, one count of reckless endangerment of the two children in Ms. Herrera Monteil's car, and possession of a controlled substance. As part of the guilty plea, the Defendant agreed to an amendment of the indictment. Accordingly, the charge of vehicular homicide was amended to the offense of reckless homicide; the two charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon were amended to charges of reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon, and the count charging the aggravated assault of Ms. Rubio Sanchez by means of serious bodily injury was dismissed.

         In ascertaining whether the Defendant's guilty plea was knowing and voluntary, the trial court noted that if she were convicted of "reckless vehicular homicide," she would face a sentence of between three and fifteen years in prison, and that this sentence would be three to six years if she were a Range I offender. The trial court did not address the range of punishment for reckless homicide. The trial court also recited the potential range of punishment for her charges of aggravated assault, a Class D felony. The court inquired into whether the Defendant agreed to an amendment of the indictment from counts charging aggravated assault to counts charging reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon, a Class E felony. The court noted that the aggravated assault had a potential punishment of two to twelve years, whereas the reckless endangerment had a potential punishment of one to six years.

         The trial court accepted the Defendant's guilty pleas, and the State introduced evidence related to sentencing. Mr. Russell Duvall, a crash investigator with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, testified that when he arrived on the scene, the Defendant and all of the victims except for Ms. Sanchez Ponce had been transported to the hospital. Witnesses told Mr. Duvall that the Lexus driven by the Defendant veered off the roadway, crossed the median, proceeded through the cable barrier, struck Ms. Sanchez Ponce's vehicle, and then struck Ms. Herrera Monteil's vehicle. Mr. Duvall retrieved data from the "black box" in the airbag control module on the Defendant's vehicle. The data revealed that, five seconds before the crash, the Defendant was traveling two miles per hour over the speed limit. The Defendant never engaged the brake during the five seconds it took her to cross the median and break through the cable barrier, although the car slowed down somewhat as it travelled on the grass and through the barrier. At the time of impact, the vehicle was travelling at forty-seven miles per hour. There were no skid marks or "erratic movements."

         Mr. Duvall testified that he attempted to inventory the Defendant's vehicle and to locate her driver's license. He found an unopened, broken bottle of vodka and a partially consumed bottle of vodka on the passenger's side floorboard. Next to the bottles of vodka was the Defendant's purse, which contained marijuana, electronic scales, a marijuana grinder, and a pipe used for smoking marijuana.

         The Defendant's cell phone was searched pursuant to a search warrant. The cell phone contained pictures of the bottle of vodka, the marijuana, the grinder, and the pipe on a hotel bed. A photograph of the phone displaying recent messages sent by the Defendant was introduced into evidence. The Defendant had sent a text message that read, "[W]e literally just sat down on the grass and started smoking a blunt." In response to a text observing that the night sounded fun, she stated, "It was bahaha." She then wrote that she had spent time with the friend who had gotten her the two bottles of vodka for her birthday. She stated, "I got barred out and stoned af." The cell phone also contained a text message which was partially typed out but never sent.

         Mr. Duvall testified that the Defendant tested positive for marijuana but that the results were "more than likely" residual due to the low level of the substance in her blood. He testified that the toxicology results led him to believe that the accident was not caused by intoxication but by recklessness.

         Ms. Rubio Sanchez testified that she and her mother were driving home from work on the day of the accident. Ms. Rubio Sanchez suffered a broken arm and bruising to her head which required a three-day hospital stay and a year of subsequent medical care. Ms. Rubio Sanchez testified that Ms. Sanchez Ponce had thirteen children ranging in age from thirty-two to seven and that she had been a hard worker who was always ready to do a favor for anyone.

         The Defendant's father testified regarding the Defendant's childhood and mental health. The Defendant's father and mother divorced when the Defendant was eight years old due to the Defendant's mother's mental health issues, which included bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The Defendant's father testified that the Defendant's mother was abusive to the children and that, due to his work hours, he was not aware of everything happening in their home. He elaborated that the Defendant's mother began using drugs, took the children to get drugs, and then threatened or spanked them to ensure their secrecy. On one occasion, the Defendant's mother threatened the family with a knife, and the Defendant's maternal grandmother called the police. On another occasion, the Defendant's mother passed out in the carpool line at school. The Defendant's father testified that he was an immigrant and had a difficult time raising the children by himself.

         When the Defendant was fifteen or sixteen years old, she began to rebel and asked to spend time with her mother, bringing her younger sister along. The Defendant's younger sister eventually showed the Defendant's father a video of the Defendant and her friends drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana with the Defendant's mother. The Defendant ran away from home, and after she was located, she was admitted to Lakeside, a behavioral health facility. The Defendant's mother exercised sporadic visitation and had not attended the Defendant's court dates.

         The Defendant's father testified that he spoke to her in the hospital soon after the accident and that she told him that she had not been drinking. The next morning, the Defendant called him, hysterical because she did not know where she was or what had happened. The Defendant has had no memory of the accident since that time. When the Defendant was told that someone died in the accident, she wanted to kill herself and was put on medication and suicide watch. The Defendant's father testified that the Defendant is remorseful.

         The Defendant was placed into Memphis Recovery Center ("MRC") for five months for inpatient treatment after the accident. She returned to school and graduated on time by taking extra classes. She was enrolled in college and active in church. The Defendant's father testified that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking medication and that she suffered from anxiety. He stated that ...

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