State v. Maine
255 P.3d 64 (Mont. 2011)
In State v. Maine, the Montana Supreme Court modified the requirements that a defendant must meet to render a prior conviction unusable for sentence enhancement. The Court declined to adopt the rigid standard used by the United States Supreme Court, which bars defendants from challenging prior convictions unless they were denied their right to counsel. The Montana Supreme Court acknowledged that the State has an interest in the finality of decisions and modified the existing standard to place a higher burden on defendants to offer affirmative evidence to demonstrate the invalidity of a prior conviction. To render a prior conviction constitutionally infirm—and therefore unusable for purposes of an enhanced punishment on a pending charge—a defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a previous conviction violated the Constitution.
On July 27, 2009, Gregory Alan Maine (“Maine”) was booked in jail for driving under the influence of alcohol (“DUI”). Law enforcement officers arrested Maine after they discovered him sleeping in a car parked on the wrong side of the road, with alcohol on his breath, and with bloodshot and glassy eyes. In addition, the results of several sobriety tests indicated that Maine was impaired. After discovering that Maine had three prior DUI convictions, the Rosebud County Attorney charged Maine with a felony DUI for a fourth or subsequent offense. Maine filed a motion to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor DUI, alleging that one of his prior convictions was invalid.
Maine claimed that the circumstances surrounding his 1997 DUI conviction made the conviction constitutionally infirm because his attorney never raised a compulsion defense. According to Maine, the 1997 conviction occurred as a result of an altercation at a rodeo in Ingomar, Montana on July 28, 1996, in which six individuals beat Maine unconscious. After Maine awoke, he fled in his pickup truck because he did not feel safe in Ingomar. After fleeing, Maine drove towards Forsyth, Montana. Two Rosebud County deputies, responding to reports of the altercation in Ingomar, noticed Maine’s truck and observed his driving. Maine pulled over of his own initiative. Maine admitted drinking twelve beers the previous night and two beers at the rodeo that day. Based on this information in conjunction with the smell of alcohol and the results of sobriety tests, the deputies placed Maine under arrest for DUI. At trial, Maine argued that he was not driving under the influence, but he never raised a compulsion defense. Maine was sentenced to 60 days in jail, 53 of which were suspended, one of which was already served; Maine did not appeal his conviction.
In the case at bar, the district court denied Maine’s motion to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor. The court reasoned that there is a need for finality in convictions, and it would be impossible for a court to sort out all the new claims and counterclaims about whether a compulsion defense would have made a difference ten years earlier. Maine was sentenced to 13 months of incarceration followed by a three-year suspended sentence. Maine appealed the district court’s decision.
In a majority opinion authored by Justice Nelson, the Montana Supreme Court began by outlining the framework from State v. Oakland, which is used by courts to determine whether a prior conviction should be included for purposes of enhanced punishment on a current charge. That framework includes:
(1) a rebuttable presumption of regularity attaches to the prior conviction, (2) the defendant has the initial burden to produce direct evidence that the prior conviction is invalid, and (3) once the defendant has made this showing, the burden shifts to the State to produce direct evidence and prove by preponderance of the evidence that the prior conviction was not entered in violation of the defendant’s rights.
Maine argued that in its application, this framework does not provide a bright line for when evidence is sufficient to rebut the presumption of regularity. Maine pointed out that in both State v. Jenni and State v. Olson, the defendants’ allegations of constitutional violations were sufficient to shift the burden to the State.
The State requested that the Court adopt the rule developed from a trio of United States Supreme Court cases which limit a defendant’s ability to challenge the use of a prior conviction to when a defendant was denied assistance of appointed counsel under Gideon v. Wainwright.
After analyzing the federal jurisprudence, the Court declined to adopt the federal rule limiting attacks on prior convictions solely to Gideon violations, reasoning that in Montana, defendants are awarded greater due-process protections. The Court determined that administrative burdens and policy concerns did not warrant limiting the constitutional arguments that a defendant can use to attack a prior conviction.
The Court retained the general framework from Oakland, but agreed with Maine that clarification was needed as to the type of evidence sufficient to shift the burden to the State. The Court held that a defendant must provide affirmative evidence establishing that the prior conviction violated the defendant’s rights under the Montana Constitution in order to transfer the burden to the State. Additionally, the Court distinguished affirmative evidence from self-serving statements or a defendant’s attempt to point to a silent or ambiguous record. The Court emphasized that the burden falls on a defendant to prove the invalidity of a prior conviction, and the State is not required to show the validity of the conviction; the Court further noted that this is a heavy burden for the defendant to overcome.
After applying the modified standard to Maine’s claims of ineffective counsel, the Court held that Maine failed to meet the burden it had just enunciated. The Court concluded that Maine’s evidence did not establish that his counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness because the record was silent on why his attorney did not raise a compulsion defense. Additionally, the Court found that Maine’s evidence failed to establish that even if his counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, the outcome of the trial would have been different.
For the Montana practitioner, Maine clarifies the burden on defendants and the State when a defendant challenges the use of a defendant’s prior conviction for the purposes of enhanced punishment. Prosecutors and defense attorneys should take note that the Court has clarified and modified a defendant’s burden of proof when challenging the constitutionality of prior convictions and has rejected the federal approach, which would limit such challenges to Gideon violations. With its decision, the Court balanced Montanan’s enhanced due-process rights with the State’s need for finality of convictions.