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State v. Pal

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

April 28, 2017

State of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Sambath Pal, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner.

          SUBMITTED ON BRIEFS ORAL ARGUMENT: February 28, 2017

         Rock County Circuit Court, Richard T. Werner Judge.

          For the defendant-appellant-petitioner there were briefs and oral argument by Philip J. Brehm, Janesville.

          For the plaintiff-respondent the cause was argued by Daniel P. Lennington, deputy solicitor general, with whom on the brief was Misha Tseytlin, solicitor general and Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

          ANNETTE KINGSLAND ZIEGLER, J.

         ¶1 This is a review of a summary disposition of the court of appeals, State v. Pal, No. 2015AP1782-CR, unpublished order (Wis. Ct. App. Apr. 8, 2016), which affirmed the Rock County circuit court's[1] judgment of conviction of defendant Sambath Pal ("Pal") and order denying Pal's motions for postconviction relief.

         ¶2 On April 20, 2014, Pal was involved in a traffic accident when his sport utility vehicle ("SUV") collided with a group of motorcyclists on a highway; two motorcyclists died from the injuries they sustained in the crash. Pal fled the accident scene, but was apprehended by the police a few days later. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of hit and run resulting in death, in violation of Wis.Stat. § 346.67(1) (2013-14).[2] The circuit court sentenced Pal to ten years of initial confinement and ten years of extended supervision for each count, with the term of imprisonment for the first count to be served consecutive to the term of imprisonment for the second count.

         ¶3 Before this court, Pal raises two challenges to his sentence. First, Pal argues that he was unconstitutionally punished for two counts of hit and run resulting in death even though he only committed a single offense, his flight from the scene. This is a multiplicity claim implicating double jeopardy and due process protections guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions. Second, Pal argues that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion at sentencing by imposing an unduly harsh sentence. Both the circuit court and the court of appeals rejected these arguments.

         ¶4 We conclude that Pal committed two offenses, not one, when he fled from the scene of his accident, and that the legislature authorized punishment for each offense. It was therefore not unconstitutional for the circuit court to accept guilty pleas and sentence Pal for both counts of hit and run resulting in death. We further conclude that the circuit court did not impose an unduly harsh sentence. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals. I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶5 On April 20, 2014, at around 8:00 p.m., law enforcement officers and emergency responders were dispatched to a traffic accident near Janesville in Rock County, Wisconsin. Witnesses reported that an SUV had swerved into the oncoming traffic lane near a curve in the highway, collided with a group of motorcyclists, and driven off without stopping. Two motorcyclists lay in the middle of the road. The first was found dead; the second was found alive but later succumbed to his injuries. Using debris found at the scene, members of law enforcement were able to determine the likely make and model of the SUV that had caused the accident.

         ¶6 Pal, the driver of the SUV, never turned himself in. But on April 24, 2014, Pal's father, suspecting Pal's involvement in the accident, notified the Rock County 911 Center that Pal had been driving his father's SUV in Janesville on the date of the accident and that Pal had returned the vehicle damaged. Law enforcement confirmed that the make and model of the SUV owned by Pal's father matched that of the vehicle they were seeking. The damage to the SUV was also consistent with the debris that law enforcement had located at the accident scene.

         ¶7 The same day a detective spoke with Pal's girlfriend and her mother, both of whom lived in Janesville. Together, their statements indicated that Pal drove a black SUV matching the description of the vehicle involved in the accident; that Pal had been staying at their house in Janesville on April 20, 2014; that Pal had left the house around 7:20 p.m. that night to pick up his girlfriend from work; and that Pal had left his girlfriend's place of work alone[3] around 7:40 p.m. with plans to purchase a bottle of wine and return to his girlfriend's house. It was about a three-minute drive from the scene of the accident to Pal's girlfriend's house.

         II. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶8 On April 25, 2014, a criminal complaint was filed against Pal in Rock County circuit court charging him with two counts of hit and run resulting in death, one count for each of the deceased motorcyclists, in violation of Wis.Stat. § 346.67(1). On May 16, 2014, an information was filed. On July 31, 2014, Pal pleaded guilty to both counts.

         ¶9 On October 1, 2014, the circuit court sentenced Pal to ten years of initial confinement and ten years of extended supervision for each count, with the term of imprisonment for the first count to be served consecutive to the term of imprisonment for the second count.[4] On October 3, 2014, a judgment of conviction was entered.

         ¶10 On May 7, 2015, Pal filed motions for postconviction relief, arguing, as explained above, that the circuit court had erroneously exercised its discretion at sentencing and that the two counts to which he had pleaded guilty were multiplicitous. On August 7, 2015, the circuit court denied the motions on the record following a hearing. On August 11, 2015, the circuit court signed a written order to that effect.

         ¶11 On August 24, 2015, Pal filed a notice of appeal. On April 8, 2016, the court of appeals summarily affirmed Pal's judgment of conviction and the order denying Pal's motions for postconviction relief. Pal, No. 2015AP1782-CR, unpublished order. On May 2, 2016, Pal filed a petition for review in this court. On October 11, 2016, we granted the petition.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶12 Whether the two counts to which Pal pleaded guilty "are multiplicitous in violation of the federal and state constitutions is a question of law subject to our independent review." State v. Ziegler, 2012 WI 73, ¶38, 342 Wis.2d 256, 816 N.W.2d 238. Examination of this question requires interpretation and application of Wis.Stat. §§ 346.67(1) and 346.74(5), which "present questions of law that this court reviews de novo while benefitting from the analyses of the court of appeals and circuit court." Id., ¶37.

         ¶13 Finally, "[w]e review a trial court's conclusion that a sentence it imposed was not unduly harsh and unconscionable for an erroneous exercise of discretion." State v. Cummings, 2014 WI 88, ¶45, 357 Wis.2d 1, 850 N.W.2d 915 (emphasis omitted) (quoting State v. Grindemann, 2002 WI.App. 106, ¶30, 255 Wis.2d 632, 648 N.W.2d 507). Pursuant to this standard, "[w]e will not set aside a discretionary ruling of the trial court if it appears from the record that the court applied the proper legal standards to the facts before it, and through a process of reasoning, reached a result which a reasonable judge could reach." Id. (quoting Grindemann, 255 Wis.2d 632, ¶30).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Whether Pal Can Be Punished for Two Counts of Hit and Run Resulting in Death

         ¶14 Pal's multiplicity claim is a claim that he received multiple punishments for the same offense in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution[5] and its counterpart in the Wisconsin Constitution.[6] See Ziegler, 342 Wis.2d 256, ¶59. We therefore examine whether the two counts for which Pal was sentenced actually pertain to the commission of a single offense. See, e.g., State v. Derango, 2000 WI 89, ¶28, 236 Wis.2d 721, 613 N.W.2d 833. We must determine whether the circuit court "impos[ed] a greater penalty than the legislature intended." Id.

         ¶15 "We review multiplicity claims according to a well-established two-pronged methodology." Ziegler, 342 Wis.2d 256, ¶6O. We first examine "whether the charged offenses are identical in law and fact." State v. Trawitzki, 2001 WI 77, ¶2l, 244 Wis.2d 523, 628 N.W.2d 801; State v. Davison, 2003 WI 89, ¶43, 263 Wis.2d 145, 666 N.W.2d 1. If we conclude that the offenses are not identical in law and fact, we presume that the legislature authorized multiple punishments. State v. Patterson, 2010 WI 130, ¶I5, 329 Wis.2d 599, 790 N.W.2d 909. This presumption, however, may be rebutted "by clear evidence of contrary legislative intent." Id., ¶I7. Under our case law, legislative intent in multiplicity cases is discerned through study of: "(1) all applicable statutory language; (2) the legislative history and context of the statutes; (3) the nature of the proscribed conduct; and (4) the appropriateness of multiple punishments for the conduct." Ziegler, 342 Wis.2d 256, ¶63. If the presumption is rebutted and this court concludes that the legislature did not authorize multiple punishments, then the defendant "has a legitimate due process claim." Id., ¶62; see also Davison, 263 Wis.2d 145, ¶33 ("'The same offense' is the sine qua non of double jeopardy.").

         ¶16 The basic issue before us today was addressed by the court of appeals in State v. Hartnek, 146 Wis.2d 188, 430 N.W.2d 361 (Ct. App. 1988). The court of appeals concluded that in situations involving "a single event of failing to stop and render aid following an automobile accident, " the State may assert multiple counts under Wis.Stat. § 346.67 if there are multiple victims. Hartnek, 146 Wis.2d at 191. Pal agrees that "[t]he issue in Hartnek was essentially identical to the issue raised by [Pal] in this appeal, " but urges us to overrule that case.

         ¶17 We proceed to analyze Pal's claim.[7] First, we conclude that the two offenses for which Pal was sentenced are not identical in fact. Second, we conclude that Pal has not rebutted the presumption that the legislature authorized punishment for each offense. Consequently, it was not unconstitutional for the circuit court to accept guilty pleas and sentence Pal for both counts of hit and run resulting in death.

         ¶18 We begin by setting out the language of the relevant statutes. Wisconsin Stat. § 346.67(1) provides:

The operator of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or death of any person or in damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall then forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of the accident until the operator has fulfilled the following requirements:
(a) The operator shall give his or her name, address and the registration number of the vehicle he or she is driving to the person struck or to the operator or occupant of or person attending any vehicle collided with; and
(b) The operator shall, upon request and if available, exhibit his or her operator's license to the person struck or to the operator or occupant of or person attending any vehicle collided with; and
(c) The operator shall render to any person injured in such accident reasonable assistance, including the carrying, or the making of arrangements for the carrying, of such person to a physician, surgeon or hospital for medical or surgical treatment if it is apparent that such treatment ...

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