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Jones v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

December 23, 2019

JONES
v.
THE STATE.

          Melton, Chief Justice.

         Jacob Daniel Jones appeals his convictions and sentences for three counts of felony sexual battery.[1] On appeal, Jones argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions, and that his criminal sentences violate the Georgia and United States Constitutions. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         1. In his first enumeration, Jones contends that the evidence presented at his trial was insufficient to support his convictions. When evaluating the sufficiency of evidence, "the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime[s] beyond a reasonable doubt." (Citation and emphasis omitted.) Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (III) (B) (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979). Similar to appeals from a jury trial resulting in a criminal conviction, on appeal from a bench trial, "we view all evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's verdict, and the defendant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence. We do not re-weigh testimony, determine witness credibility, or address assertions of conflicting evidence." (Citation omitted.) Wimberly v. State, 302 Ga. 321, 323 (1) (806 S.E.2d 599) (2017).

         Viewing the evidence in this light, the record shows that, at all relevant times, Jones was 18 years old, and the victim, J.S., was 15. On the morning of August 12, 2013, J.S. was at home with her friends when she started texting Jones, whom she had known for approximately one year. Jones eventually showed up at J.S.'s house, uninvited, and requested to speak to J.S. She agreed and stepped out onto the front porch, accompanied by a friend. During this conversation, Jones told J.S. "all I need is three minutes," and "[your friend] needs to go in the other room," to which J.S. responded, "that's not a good idea."

         After some time, J.S. started to become uncomfortable with the conversation, so she walked to a nearby basketball goal and called out to her other friends still inside the home to come outside and join her in a game. The group, which included J.S. and Jones, proceeded to play basketball and, at some point during the game, J.S. hugged Jones. At this time, Jones put his hands between J.S.'s legs, then moved them over her buttocks and breasts and said, "if I wanted to I could get you there." J.S. testified that these touches occurred over her clothing and without her permission. J.S. backed away and continued to play basketball until Jones left.

         Based on the foregoing, we find that the evidence was sufficient to enable a rational trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Jones was guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. See Jackson, supra. See also OCGA § 16-6-22.1.[2]

         2. We turn next to Jones' claim that the statutory sentencing scheme for felony sexual battery[3] is unconstitutional as applied to him. Jones argues that the felony sentencing statute violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia and United States Constitutions, and violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment found in the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I of the Georgia Constitution. We address each in turn.

          (a) First, Jones argues that the felony sexual battery sentencing scheme violates his right to equal protection under the Georgia and United States Constitutions because the statute fails to include a misdemeanor punishment provision for sexual contact between teenagers (what is sometimes referred to as a "Romeo and Juliet provision") similar to Georgia's statutory rape (OCGA § 16-6-3 (c))[4] and child molestation (OCGA § 16-6-4 (b) (2))[5] sentencing schemes. Conceding that his claim is subject to rational basis review, see Pierce v. State, 302 Ga. 389 (3) (b) (807 S.E.2d 425) (2017), Jones argues that the failure by the General Assembly to include a Romeo and Juliet provision within the sexual battery statute creates an unconstitutional disparity in sentencing between teenage defendants accused of sexual battery and those accused of statutory rape or child molestation. However, because Jones is not similarly situated to teenage defendants accused of statutory rape or child molestation, he has failed to show that OCGA § 16-6-22.1 (d) violates his right to equal protection.

As we have previously explained, under the rational basis test,
the claimant must establish that he is similarly situated to members of the class who are treated differently from him. Next, the claimant must establish that there is no rational basis for such different treatment. And because the legislation is presumptively valid, the claimant has the burden of proof as to both prongs.

(Citation and punctuation omitted.) Harper v. State, 292 Ga. 557, 560 (1) (738 S.E.2d 584) (2013). Under the first prong, "[t]he proper inquiry is whether the statute applies equally to all those accused under it, and therefore does not create disparate classifications among similarly situated persons." Reed v. State, 264 Ga. 466, 466 (448 S.E.2d 189) (1994). In general, "[f]or equal protection purposes, criminal defendants are similarly situated if they are charged with the same crime." (Citation omitted; emphasis supplied.) Pitts v. State, 293 Ga. 511, 516 (2) (748 S.E.2d 426) (2013). But here, Jones alleges he is being treated differently from teenage defendants charged with different crimes. Indeed, whereas felony sexual battery occurs when a person "intentionally makes physical contact with the intimate parts of the body of another person [under the age of 16] without the consent of that person," OCGA § 16-6-22.1 (b and d), the State is not required to prove lack of consent for either statutory rape or child molestation, see OCGA §§ 16-6-3, 16-6-4.

         Additionally, the General Assembly "has wide discretion in setting penalties, . . . and courts may not 'substitute their judgments as to the appropriateness of criminal penalties for those lawfully expressed by the General Assembly.'" (Citations omitted.) Hailey v. State, 263 Ga. 210, 211 (429 S.E.2d 917) (1993). Because Jones is not similarly situated to teenage defendants charged with statutory rape and child molestation, his equal protection claim fails. See Drew v. State, 285 Ga. 848, 849 (2) (684 S.E.2d 608) (2009) ("Because there is no contention that [the defendant] is punished differently from others accused and convicted of the same crime, "there is no unconstitutional disparate treatment of similarly situated persons.'" (Citation omitted.)).

         (b) Jones next claims that the sentencing scheme for felony sexual battery violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, Jones alleges that, because he was facing up to 15 years in confinement under OCGA § 16-6-22.1 (d), the statue, as applied to him, is grossly disproportionate to the severity of his crime. Again, we disagree.

         Both the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Art. I, Sec. I, Par. XVII of the Georgia Constitution, "categorically prohibit inflicting cruel and unusual punishments." (Citation omitted.) Johnson v. State, 276 Ga. 57, 62 (5) (573 S.E.2d 362) ...


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