Missouri Eastern District Court of Appeals in the renovated Old Post Office in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Information St. Louis, Inc.

 

 

The Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled that a woman can’t take advantage of a flaw in Missouri’s felony stealing statute even though her probation was revoked after the Missouri Supreme Court identified the issue.

The March 26 opinion was the latest in a long string of appellate rulings on the effects of the Supreme Court’s 2016 State v. Bazell case. Under Missouri law, stealing is typically a misdemeanor, but under c​​ertain circumstances it can be elevated to a felony. In Bazell and a follow-up ruling, the court said the enhancements apply only to offenses “in which the value of property or services is an element.”

The statutory definition of stealing, however, makes no reference to value. As a result, none of the enhancements could be applied to make stealing anything other than a class A misdemeanor.

State lawmakers already had rewritten the felony stealing statute by the time Bazell was decided. But the decision prompted numerous motions by offenders who’d already been convicted seeking to reopen their cases. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office estimated at the time that there were some 12,000 defendants in prison or on probation or parole with felony stealing convictions.

The Supreme Court largely dammed that flood of post-conviction litigation with a 2017 ruling, State ex rel. Windeknecht v. Mesmer, which held that Bazell would apply only to offenders whose cases were on direct appeal, not those that already were final. Since then, appellate courts routinely have knocked down challenges based on Bazell’s holding.

Heather Hamilton, however, presented a novel twist. She pleaded guilty in 2012 to two counts of felony stealing — a class C offense at the time. A Lincoln County judge suspended imposition of Hamilton’s sentence and placed her on probation for five years. But after she violated her probation, the judge in 2017 sentenced her to five years in prison.

Under a suspended imposition of sentence, or SIS, the judgment isn’t considered final while the defendant remains on probation, and if she successfully completes probation she won’t have a criminal conviction on her record. Both Hamilton’s public defender and the attorney general’s office urged the appeals court to allow Hamilton to be resentenced, as her case technically wasn’t final until almost seven months after Bazell.

The Eastern District, however, said it declined to “create an exception” to the Supreme Court’s Windeknecht ruling “that would allow post-conviction movants to reap the benefit of the forward application of Bazell merely because they were sentenced after Bazell was decided.”

“Although Movant’s convictions were not final until after Bazell, this does not negate the fact that Movant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily pleaded guilty under a prior interpretation of” the felony stealing statute, Judge Angela T. Quigless wrote. Judges Roy L. Richter and Robert M. Clayton III concurred. “As such, when the trial court terminated Movant’s probation, the court properly imposed a sentence of five years for each count of felony stealing, which was within the limit set by law for the offense.”

James Egan, a public defender for Hamilton, said he intended to ask the court to rehear the case or transfer it to the Supreme Court.

The case is Hamilton v. State of Missouri, ED106540.

By: Scott Lauck ​| Missouri Lawyers Weekly​