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Butcher v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

August 7, 2017

PRENTISS BUTCHER, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: July 12, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. I.D. No. 1503015114 (N

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. SENTENCE VACATED. REMANDED FOR RESENTENCING.

          John S. Malik, Esquire (argued), Wilmington, Delaware for Appellant.

          Elizabeth R. McFarlan, Esquire, and Andrew J. Vella, Esquire (argued), Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellee.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices, constituting the Court en Banc.

          VALIHURA, Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before this Court is appellant Prentiss Butcher's ("Butcher") appeal from the Superior Court's July 19, 2016 judgment of sentence for Possession of a Firearm By a Person Prohibited, 11 Del. C. § 1448 ("Person Prohibited"). This statute mandates enhanced penalties where a defendant has prior violent felony convictions.[1] Section 1448(e)(3) states that "'violent felony' means any felony so designated by § 4201(c) of this title . . . ."[2] At sentencing, the Superior Court held that Butcher had two prior "violent felony" convictions warranting a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence pursuant to Section 1448(e)(1)(c). On appeal, Butcher contends that the Superior Court erred in sentencing him because one of the two predicate offenses was no longer designated a violent felony when he committed Person Prohibited. Thus, this appeal requires the Court to determine which version of Section 4201(c) controls when a sentencing court must decide whether a prior conviction constitutes a predicate violent felony for the purpose of enhanced sentencing under Section 1448(e).

         For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that a sentencing court must look to the version of Section 4201(c) in effect upon commission of the Section 1448 offense for which a defendant is being sentenced. Because the Superior Court in this case applied a version of Section 4201(c) that was no longer in effect when Butcher violated Section 1448, we vacate the Sentence Order and remand for resentencing consistent with this Opinion.

         II. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 23, 2015, Butcher was arrested after police discovered a firearm concealed in his waistband during a traffic stop. On November 17, 2015, a jury found him guilty of Person Prohibited, Possession of Ammunition by a Person Prohibited ("Person Prohibited Ammunition"), and Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon ("Concealed Carry").

         Butcher's prior convictions included Distribution or Possession of a Controlled Substance within 300 Feet of a Park ("Possession Within 300") in 2010 and Possession with Intent to Deliver Heroin in 2011. The State requested that the Superior Court sentence Butcher for Person Prohibited pursuant to Section 1448(e)(1)(c), which imposes a ten-year minimum mandatory sentence if a defendant "has been convicted on 2 or more separate occasions of any violent felony."[3] At his July 19, 2016 sentencing hearing, Butcher argued that his 2010 conviction did not constitute a prior violent felony because the General Assembly had, in September 2011, removed Possession Within 300 from the list of felonies designated as "violent felonies" in Section 4201(c). Relying on dicta from this Court's decision in French v. State, [4] the Superior Court rejected his argument.[5] The court found that Butcher had two prior violent felony convictions and sentenced him pursuant to Section 1448(e)(1)(c) to 15 years of Level V incarceration, suspended after 10 years with decreasing levels of supervision. Butcher also received two five-year sentences at Level V, suspended for one year at Level III, for Person Prohibited Ammunition and Concealed Carry. All terms of confinement were to run consecutively.

         On appeal, Butcher contends that the Superior Court improperly failed to apply the definition of "violent felony" in effect at the time he committed Person Prohibited in March of 2015. Butcher also argues that this failure violated his Due Process rights, although he acknowledges that he did not raise this issue below. Because we conclude that the Superior Court incorrectly applied the relevant sentencing provisions, we do not reach Butcher's constitutional argument.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Scope of Review

         Whether a prior conviction constitutes a predicate violent felony under Section 1448(e)(1) is a question of law, which this Court reviews de novo.[6] In addition, we "review statutory construction issues de novo to determine if the Superior Court erred as a matter of law in formulating or applying legal precepts."[7] This Court has previously held that Section 1448(e)(1) is unambiguous.[8] When the General Assembly's "intent is reflected by unambiguous language in the statute, the language itself controls."[9]

         B. The Superior Court Improperly Held That a Conviction for an Offense Not Designated in Section 4201(c) Constituted a Predicate Violent Felony

         The relevant sentencing provision, 11 Del. C. § 1448(e)(1), provides:

Notwithstanding any provision of this section or Code to the contrary, any person who is a prohibited person as described in this section and who knowingly possesses, purchases, owns or controls a firearm or destructive weapon while so prohibited shall receive a minimum sentence of:
a. Three years at Level V, if the person has previously been convicted of a violent felony;
b. Five years at Level V, if the person does so within 10 years of the date of conviction for any violent felony or the date of termination of all periods of incarceration or confinement imposed pursuant to said conviction, whichever is the later date; or
c. Ten years at Level V, if the person has been convicted on 2 or more separate occasions of any ...

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