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Mays v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

April 25, 2018

MAYS
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DILLARD, Chief Judge.

         In August 2017, Damon Mays pleaded guilty as a "first offender" under OCGA § 42-8-60, et seq. ("the First Offender Act") to one count each of aggravated assault, misdemeanor family-violence battery, and third-degree cruelty to children. At sentencing, the trial court adopted the State's recommendation to sentence Mays to ten years of probation. On appeal, Mays argues that, in sentencing him, the trial court erred by failing to include a "behavioral[-]incentive date, " which is required under OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B). For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         The record shows that on August 9, 2017, Mays pleaded guilty to the foregoing offenses as part of a negotiated plea agreement with the State. During sentencing, Mays acknowledged that, under the plea agreement, he would be given first-offender treatment[1] and sentenced to ten years of probation. Mays also testified that he understood the benefit of being sentenced as a first offender-i.e., that if he successfully completed probation without any violations or committing other crimes, he would not be adjudicated guilty of the charged offenses or considered a convicted felon. But Mays also recognized that, if he violated his probation or committed a new crime, he could then be adjudicated guilty of these offenses and resentenced to the maximum possible punishment. Having been advised of these consequences, Mays reiterated his desire to be sentenced as a first offender.

         Ultimately, after advising Mays of the various rights he was waiving by pleading guilty, as well as hearing the factual basis for the charges, the trial court accepted Mays's guilty plea as knowing and voluntary and sentenced him to ten years of probation. Immediately thereafter, Mays requested that the court include a behavioral-incentive date in his sentence, arguing that it was required by OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B). But the trial court disagreed with Mays, finding that the statute did not apply when a defendant is sentenced as a first offender.[2] In the end, rather than make a final ruling, the trial court stated that "[i]f it turns out" that its interpretation of the new statute was incorrect, "Mays could apply to have [his] probation terminated three years from [the date of the sentencing hearing]." Nevertheless, following the hearing, the trial court issued an order sentencing Mays to ten years of probation as a first offender without making any reference to a behavioral-incentive date. This appeal follows.

         In his sole enumeration of error, Mays argues that the trial court erred in failing to give him a behavioral-incentive date as required by OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B). We disagree.

         Under Georgia law, a sentence is void if "the court imposes punishment that the law does not allow."[3] But a sentence that falls within the prescribed statutory limits is "legally authorized and is not subject to review by this Court."[4] Here, Mays contends his sentence does not fall within the prescribed statutory limits because it violates OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B)'s requirement that the court impose a behavioral-incentive date. The interpretation of a statute is, of course, a question of law, which is reviewed de novo on appeal.[5] Indeed, when only a question of law is at issue, as here, "we owe no deference to the trial court's ruling and apply the 'plain legal error' standard of review."[6]

         When interpreting any statute, we necessarily begin our analysis with "familiar and binding canons of construction."[7] In considering the meaning of a statute, our charge as an appellate court is to "presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant."[8] Toward that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, [9] consider the text contextually, [10] read the text "in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would, "[11] and seek to "avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage."[12] Further, when the language of a statute is "plain and susceptible to only one natural and reasonable construction, courts must construe the statute accordingly."[13]

         Turning to the statute at hand, which became effective on July 1, 2017, [14] OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B) provides, in relevant part:

When a defendant is convicted of felony offenses, has no prior felony conviction, and the court imposes a sentence of probation, not to include a split sentence, the court shall include a behavioral[-]incentive date in its sentencing order that does not exceed three years from the date such sentence is imposed.

          Here, it is undisputed that Mays has no prior felony convictions, and the trial court imposed only a sentence of probation. But significantly, the plain language of OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B) provides that it only applies "[w]hen a defendant is convicted of felony offenses."[15] Because Mays was sentenced as a first offender, he was not convicted of any felony offenses. Indeed, as explained by our Supreme Court, "[a] first offender's guilty plea does not constitute a 'conviction' as that term is defined in the Criminal Code of Georgia . . . ."[16] And Mays acknowledged as much when he requested and was granted first-offender status at sentencing-i.e., that if he successfully completed probation without any violations or committing other crimes, he would not be adjudicated guilty of the charged offenses or considered a convicted felon. Thus, given the plain language of OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B), the trial court correctly concluded that it was not required to include a behavioral-incentive date in Mays's ten-year sentence of probation because his guilty plea did not result in a conviction. Significantly, in previous cases, Georgia courts have held that when a defendant pleads guilty to a felony as a first offender and his sentence of probation is never discharged or revoked, other statutes requiring a prior felony conviction do not apply when the defendant commits a subsequent crime.[17]

         Nevertheless, Mays argues that, in enacting OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B), the General Assembly could not have "intended" to preclude defendants who qualify for first-offender treatment from the benefit of a behavioral-incentive date because doing so does not "square with common sense or good public policy." And in support, he lists several allegedly undesirable consequences of interpreting the statute as the trial court did. For example, he claims that the trial court's interpretation of OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B) would force defendants to choose between receiving first-offender treatment and a behavioral-incentive date. May's other examples highlight his concern that, under the trial court's interpretation of this statute, there would be instances when a defendant who had been convicted of a felony would receive more favorable treatment from a behavioral-incentive date than first-time offender status. In sum, Mays contends that a behavioral-incentive date is "clearly meant to encourage good behavior on probation with the incentive of receiving early termination of the probated sentence" and "[i]t makes common sense that the legislature would intend to provide such an incentive to first[-]time felony defendants."

         Generally speaking, Mays is correct that "courts must construe statutes in a way that square[s] with common sense and sound reasoning."[18] Furthermore, we have a duty to "consider the results and consequences of any proposed construction and not . . . construe a statute as will result in unreasonable or absurd consequences not contemplated by the legislature [as evinced by the relevant text]."[19] But even if Mays's public-policy concerns are valid, he has not identified any absurd results of adhering to the plain language of OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B). And as we have repeatedly emphasized, when the language of a statute is "plain and susceptible to only one natural and reasonable construction, [as here, ] courts must construe the statute accordingly."[20] This is because under our "system of separation of powers this Court does not have the authority to rewrite statutes."[21] Indeed, the doctrine of separation of powers is "an immutable constitutional principle which must be strictly enforced[, ] [and] [u]nder that doctrine, statutory construction belongs to the courts, legislation to the legislature."[22] Simply put, regardless of whether Mays or this Court would have drafted OCGA § 17-10-1 (a) (1) (B) differently based on public policy or fairness concerns, Mays fails to identify any portion of the relevant statutory text that is ambiguous, and under such circumstances, we must abide by the plain language of the statute, which requires a prior conviction.[23] In fact, as noted supra, Georgia courts have done just that when interpreting other statutes that are only applicable when the defendant has a prior conviction.[24]

         For all these reasons, we affirm the trial court's decision not to include a ...


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