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State v. Tran

Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawaii

July 14, 2016

STATE OF HAWAI'I, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DAT MINH TRAN, Defendant-Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST CIRCUIT (CR. NO. 95-0-002471)

          Cynthia A. Kagiwada for Petitioner-Appellant

          Stephen K. Tsushima Deputy Prosecuting Attorney City and County of Honolulu for Plaintiff-Appellee

          NAKAMURA, C.J., AND FOLEY AND LEONARD, JJ.

          OPINION

          NAKAMURA, C.J.

         In 1997, Defendant-Appellant Dat Minh Tran (Tran) was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole after he was convicted of attempted first-degree murder. Tran was seventeen years old, and thus a juvenile, when he committed the offense, but the family court waived jurisdiction and he was prosecuted as an adult. When he was sentenced in 1997, Tran received the mandatory sentence applicable to his offense under Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) § 706-656(1) (1993), which then provided: "Persons convicted of first degree murder or first degree attempted murder shall be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole."

         After Tran's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal and became final, the United States Supreme Court issued three decisions concerning juveniles under the Eight Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments." These decisions established limitations on the imposition of the most severe penalties -- the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole -- on juvenile offenders. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005), the Court held that the death penalty could not be imposed on offenders who were juveniles (under the age of eighteen) when their crimes were committed. In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74-75 (2010), the Court held that a juvenile offender could not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a nonhomicide crime. Finally, in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012), the Court held that a sentencing scheme that mandates a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders (even those who commit a homicide) violates the Eight Amendment.

         In the wake of these decisions, Tran filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief. The Circuit Court of the First Circuit (Circuit Court)[1] granted the Petition and set aside Tran's sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The Circuit Court subsequently resentenced Tran to life with the possibility of parole.

         After Tran was resentenced and his opening brief was filed, the 2014 Hawai'i Legislature enacted Act 202 "to abolish life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option for those convicted for offenses committed while under the age of eighteen." 2014 Haw. Sess. Laws Act 202 (Act 202), § 1 at 694. Act 202 amended HRS § 706-656(1) so that it now provides: "Persons under the age of eighteen years at the time of the offense who are convicted of first degree murder or first degree attempted murder shall be sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole." 2014 Haw. Sess. Laws Act 202, § 2 at 694. Act 202 applies to "proceedings arising on or after its effective date [(July 2, 2014)] and to proceedings that were begun but not concluded before its effective date." 2014 Haw. Sess. Laws Act 202, § 6 at 695 (emphasis added) .

         Tran appeals from the Amended Judgment which resentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole on his conviction for attempted first-degree murder. On appeal, Tran argues that: (1) the Circuit Court erred in severing and reforming HRS § 706-656 (in response to Miller, Graham, and Roper and before it was amended by Act 202) to require the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole; and (2) the Circuit Court abused its discretion in failing to consider the mitigating factors of youth in resentencing him. Tran also argues that the 2014 amendment to HRS § 706-656(1) by Act 202 to require a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional because it fails to provide for individualized sentencing and consideration of the mitigating factors of youth.

         As explained in greater detail below, we conclude that the Legislature's 2014 amendment of HRS § 706-656(1) effectively eliminates the need to address Tran's severability arguments. We reject Tran's claim that the Circuit Court's sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole and the amended HRS § 706-656(1) are unconstitutional. We therefore affirm Tran's sentence.

         BACKGROUND

         Tran's conviction stemmed from an incident that occurred on October 7, 1995. A dispute arose between individuals in a red truck and a group consisting of Tran and his friends, who were in two cars. A chase through Waikiki involving the red truck and the two cars ensued. Tran was a passenger in one of the cars. During the chase, Tran stood up in the car with a gun, stuck his head and hand out the open sunroof, and fired at least two shots at the red truck. One shot went through the truck's front windshield, rear view mirror, and rear windshield and struck a passenger riding in the bed of the truck in the right armpit area. Although the passenger was injured, he did not die from the gunshot wound. A second shot, which did not strike anyone, went through the truck's grill and radiator and was found on the passenger side by the door.

         Tran was seventeen years old at the time of the alleged offense. The family court waived jurisdiction and Tran was prosecuted as an adult. Tran was charged with attempted murder in the first degree, in violation of HRS § 707-701(1) (a) (1993) and HRS § 705-500 (1993) (Count l);[2] attempted murder in the second degree with respect to each of the three individuals in the red truck, in violation of HRS § 707-701.5(1) (1993) and HRS § 705-500 (Counts 2, 3, and 4); and place to keep loaded firearm, in violation of HRS § 134-6(c) and (e) (Supp. 1995) (Count 5).

         The jury found Tran guilty as charged on Counts 1 and 5. On October 14, 1997, the Circuit Court sentenced Tran to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on Count 1, which was the mandatory sentence then in effect for anyone convicted of attempted first-degree murder. The Circuit Court sentenced Tran to a concurrent term of ten years of imprisonment on Count 5, with a mandatory minimum term of ten years.

         Tran filed a direct appeal of his Judgment of conviction and sentence. On October 6, 1998, the Hawai'i Supreme Court issued a summary disposition order affirming Tran's Judgment. Tran filed petitions for post-conviction relief in 2000, 2003, and 2005, which were all denied.

         On December 14, 2012, after the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller, Tran filed his fourth petition for post-conviction relief. On July 31, 2013, the Circuit Court granted the petition. On August 2, 2013, the Circuit Court issued an order setting aside Tran's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on Count 1 and scheduling the case for resentencing on that count.

         On October 16, 2013, after hearing arguments from the parties, the Circuit Court resentenced Tran on Count 1 to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The Circuit Court concluded that pursuant to Graham, which precluded juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicide crimes, Tran could not be sentenced to life without parole. The Circuit Court also construed Miller to mean that as applied to a juvenile, the portion of HRS § 706-656 which mandated the imposition of a sentence of life without parole was unconstitutional. The Circuit Court concluded that after excising the unconstitutional portion of HRS § 706-656, what was left and what came closest to the legislature's intent as far as HRS § 706-656 was concerned was a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The Circuit Court ruled that it could not "go below" a sentence of life with the possibility of parole and imposed that sentence on Tran.

         The Circuit Court filed its Amended Judgment on October 16, 2013, which sentenced Tran to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole on Count 1 and reimposed the concurrent ten-year term of imprisonment it previously imposed on Count 5.[3]This appeal followed.

         DISCUSSION

         I.

         When Tran was originally sentenced in 1997, he received the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole that was mandated by HRS § 706-565(1) (1993) for his attempted first-degree murder conviction. At the time Tran committed this offense, HRS § 706-656(1) (1993) provided: "Persons convicted of first degree murder or first degree attempted murder shall be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole."

         Tran's resentencing and the subsequent amendment to HRS § 706-656(1) was prompted by a trilogy of decisions by the United States Supreme Court, Roper, Graham, and Miller, which applied the Eight Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in cases involving juvenile offenders sentenced to death and life without the possibility of a parole. These cases provide the backdrop for Tran's challenge to the Circuit Court's resentencing him to life with the possibility of parole, and we begin with a discussion of the three cases.

         A.

         In Roper, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids the imposition of the death penalty on offenders who committed their crimes when they were under the age of eighteen. Roper, 543 U.S. at 578.[4] The Court noted that "[b]ecaue the death penalty is the most severe punishment, the Eighth Amendment applies to it with special force." Id. at 568. The Court concluded that the differences between juveniles and adults "demonstrate that juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders[, ]" and that in light of the diminished ...


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