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State v. Lamont L. Travis, 2012 WI App 46, WSC review granted 9/14/12

on review of published decisioncase activity

Issue (composed by on Point) 

Whether sentencing reliance on inaccurate information (here, misapprehension of mandatory minimum incarceration) is structural error.

Travis pleaded guilty to an offense that all concerned (defense, prosecution, sentencing court) wrongly thought carried a 5-year mandatory minimum (largely due to confusion about the particular offense Travis pleaded to). The court of appeals clarified that the offense of conviction in fact had no mandatory minimum. Then, after stressing that the sentencing court had “repeatedly relied on the incorrect notion” of a mandatory minimum, the court of appeals deemed this misconception to be in the nature of “structural error,” which is to say, an “error (that) is per se prejudicial and thus subject to automatic reversal.” Resentencing was mandated. The attorney general sought review, which has now been granted. The AG doesn’t appear to contest the idea that the sentencing court wrongly thought a mandatory minimum applied. Rather, his argument appears to be limited to whether harmless error analysis applies here, so that the sentencing result may be upheld, notwithstanding the nature of error. Contrast that approach, with the court of appeals’ in this case:

¶23      The circuit court acknowledged that the error “really pervaded the entire file in this case.”  The error was not an isolated mistake that affected just a discretionary decision of the circuit court.  The error infected the charging of Travis; the error infected the plea negotiations; the error infected Travis’s discussions with his trial counsel; the error infected the plea hearing; and the error infected the sentencing of Travis, where all participants acted with the misunderstanding that the starting point for Travis was five years in prison.  We agree with the circuit court that the error affected the entire framework within which Travis was prosecuted.

¶24      We hold that the error affected the fairness, integrity, and the public reputation of the judicial proceedings.  All participantsoperated under the assumption that Travis was going to prison for at least five years, when in reality there was no mandatory minimum sentence required.  It is impossible to measure the breadth of the error.  The error affected the State’s charging decision, Travis’s plea decision, communications and negotiations between the State and Travis, and the circuit court’s basic assumptions as to Travis’s sentence.  Travis’s due process right to be sentenced upon accurate information was violated.  As the pervasive error seriously affected the fairness and integrity of Travis’s sentence, we hold that it was a structural error requiring a reversal of the circuit court’s denial of resentencing.

Note that the AG does not appear to be renewing the threshold argument in the court of appeals, namely that Travis had in fact pleaded guilty to a mandatory-minimum offense. Failure to renew the argument means that the supreme court will (or at least, should) not entertain it, § 809.62(6), and that the lower court discussion on the point should therefore retain precedential effect, 2012 WI App 46, ¶16.

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