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State v. Riggs

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 1, 2017

THE STATE
v.
RIGGS.

          PETERSON, JUSTICE.

         Under OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b), a defendant convicted of a sexual offense must receive a split sentence: that is, a sentence that includes a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment followed by an additional probated sentence of at least one year. When a defendant is convicted of only one sexual offense, the application of this statute is simple. This case presents the more complicated question of how the statute applies when a defendant is convicted of multiple sexual offenses: Does the split-sentence requirement apply to each of the multiple sexual offenses of which a defendant is convicted or, as the State argues, only to the aggregate sentence? Considering the plain language of OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b) in the context of the well-established principle that each count receives a discrete sentence, we conclude that the statute requires a split sentence on each sexual offense. Because the Court of Appeals correctly vacated those sentences that failed to meet this requirement, we affirm.

         The record shows that Darren Riggs entered into a non-negotiated guilty plea to multiple charges, including several sexual offenses. He was sentenced to a total sentence of 50 years with 30 to serve. Pertinent to this appeal, Riggs was sentenced on the sexual offenses as follows:

• Count 4 (child molestation): 20 years to serve, concurrent with Count 1 (distribution and delivery of cocaine);
• Count 5 (enticing a child for indecent purposes): 20 years, 10 years to serve, balance probated, consecutive to Counts 1 and 4;
• Counts 7-11 (child molestation): 20 years to serve, concurrent to Count 1;
• Count 15 (statutory rape): 20 years to serve, concurrent to Count 1; and
• Count 17 (child molestation): 20 years, 10 years to serve, balance probated, concurrent to Count 5.

         Riggs filed a motion to reduce his sentence, [1] which the trial court denied. Riggs appealed to the Court of Appeals.

         In an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals, relying on its own precedent, [2] agreed with Riggs that the trial court violated OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b) by failing to impose split sentences on each of the child molestation offenses in Counts 4 and 7-11 and the statutory rape offense in Count 15.[3] See Riggs v. State, 336 Ga.App. XXIII (March 4, 2016) (unpublished). The Court of Appeals concluded that the sentences on Counts 4, 7-11, and 15 were void and vacated the sentences on these counts, as well as on Counts 5 and 17, which did meet the split-sentence requirement. We granted the State's petition for certiorari to consider the meaning of the split-sentence requirement under OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b).

         1. The split-sentence requirement of OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b) applies to each sexual offense count.

         The State argues that a plain reading of OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b) shows that the split-sentence requirement applies only to the overall sentence, not each conviction for a sexual offense. We disagree.

In construing statutes,
we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant and so we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would. The common and customary usages of the words are important, but so is their context. For context, we may look to other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law that forms the legal background of the statutory provision in question.

State v. Randle, 298 Ga. 375, 376-377 (781 S.E.2d 781) (2016) (citation and punctuation omitted).

         OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b) provides in relevant part as follows:

Except as provided in subsection (c) of this Code section, and notwithstanding any other provisions of law to the contrary, any person convicted of a sexual offense shall be sentenced to a split sentence which shall include the minimum term of imprisonment specified in the Code section applicable to the offense. No portion of the mandatory minimum sentence imposed shall be suspended, stayed, probated, deferred, or withheld by the sentencing court and such sentence shall include, in addition to the mandatory imprisonment, an additional probated sentence of at least one year.

         A "sexual offense" is defined to include the sexual crimes committed by Riggs, including child molestation, statutory rape, and enticing a child for indecent purposes. See OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (a).

         Before considering the specific requirements of OCGA § 17-10-6.2 (b), it is important to understand a trial court's general sentencing obligations. When a court sentences a defendant for a particular offense, it must consider the statutory range for that crime. See OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (providing that "[e]xcept in cases in which life imprisonment, life without parole, or the death penalty may be imposed, . . . the judge fixing the sentence shall prescribe a determinate sentence for a specific number of months or years which shall be within the minimum and maximum sentences prescribed by law as the punishment for the crime"). A trial court must do this whether a defendant is convicted of one offense or many, resulting in a discrete sentence for each offense. See Evans v. State, 300 Ga. 271, 276 (794 S.E.2d 40) (2016) ("[A]s to sentencing, each count stands alone[.]"). When a trial court fails to impose separate sentences for each count of which a defendant was found guilty, it has not entered a proper judgment. See, e.g., Keller v. State, 275 Ga. 680, 681 (571 S.E.2d 806) (2002) ("[W]hen multiple counts of an indictment are tried together and the trial court does not enter a written sentence on one or more counts, the case is still pending in the trial court and is not a ...


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