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State v. Ranstead

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 6, 2018

STATE OF ALASKA, Petitioner,

          Petition for Hearing from the Court of Appeals of the State of Alaska Court of Appeals No. A-l 1805, Superior Court No. 4FA-11-02590 CR, on appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Michael P. McConahy, Judge.

          Donald Soderstrom, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Petitioner.

          Sandra K. Rolfe, Stepovich & Vacura Law Office, Fairbanks, for Respondent.

          Josie Garton, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae, Alaska Public Defender Agency.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices, and Eastaugh, Senior Justice. [*] [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]


          BOLGER, JUSTICE.


         In Roman v. State, we recognized that conditions of probation and parole "must be reasonably related to the rehabilitation of the offender and the protection of the public and must not be unduly restrictive of liberty."[1] The court of appeals recently read Roman as requiring that a sentencing court affirmatively review all probation conditions proposed in the presentence report, even if the defendant has not objected to those conditions.[2] It applied that requirement to Dean Ranstead's sentence appeal and remanded to the superior court. The State of Alaska petitioned for hearing. We agree with the court of appeals that a sentencing court bears responsibility for ensuring that probation conditions satisfy the requirements of Roman and are not otherwise illegal. But a sentencing court is not required to make particularized findings to support the imposition of a proposed probation condition to which the defendant has not objected. We therefore reverse the court of appeals' decision to the extent it vacated probation conditions to which Ranstead did not object.


         Dean Ranstead pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault.[3] Before the sentencing hearing, a probation officer prepared a presentence report.[4] The report recommended that the superior court sentence Ranstead to a term of imprisonment followed by a term of probation and that the court impose 11 "general" probation conditions and 26 "special" conditions. Ranstead filed written objections to 10 of the recommended special conditions of probation.

         At the sentencing hearing, the superior court explained that it had reviewed the case file, the presentence report, substance abuse and psychological evaluations, and letters in support of Ranstead and the victim. The court further stated that it had "s[een] a fair amount of information from grand jury tapes to a lot of other things" and that it thus "ha[d] a broader sense of the operative facts and the percipient witnesses than is the normal case." The victim, the prosecutor, Ranstead, and Ranstead's attorney all made statements.

         The court discussed and weighed various statutory sentencing considerations, [5] generally known as the Chaney factors.[6] Based on these considerations, the court sentenced Ranstead to 14 years' imprisonment with 8 years suspended, to be followed by 10 years' probation. The court addressed and overruled Ranstead's objections to the proposed special conditions of probation. It adopted all of the proposed general and special conditions without additional substantive discussion.

         Ranstead appealed his sentence to the court of appeals, challenging - among other things - a number of the imposed conditions of probation. In his brief, he challenged one of the general conditions, which he had not objected to in the superior court, and ten special conditions, including one which he had not objected to in the superior court. The court of appeals rejected Ranstead's challenge to the general condition[7] but vacated all ten of the special conditions which he had challenged on appeal.[8] The court also struck down two conditions that Ranstead had not objected to in the superior court or challenged on appeal.[9]

         Further, the court of appeals noted that it had recently held in Beasley v. State[10] that "a judge must affirmatively review the State's proposed probation conditions to ensure that they are both appropriate and constitutionally permissible" and that "[a] judge may not delegate this responsibility to the presentence report author, even if the defense does not object."[11] The court determined that "[i]n Ranstead's case, the superior court adopted all of the conditions of probation recommended in the presentence report, without subjecting them to the required critical review."[12] The court consequently vacated all of the remaining conditions - even though Ranstead had not objected to most of them in the superior court and had not challenged any on appeal - and ordered that these conditions be reconsidered on remand.[13]

         The State filed a petition for hearing with this court, [14] contending that "[t]here is no basis for a rule requiring trial judges to make explicit findings about probation conditions when the defendant raises no objection" and that "this rule imposes a great burden on trial courts." We granted the petition and ordered briefing from the parties on two issues: (1) In cases where there is a presentence report that recommends special probation conditions, does a defendant need to object to a proposed probation condition to preserve the issue for appeal? (2) Is the sentencing judge required to make findings in support of probation conditions that a defendant has not objected to?


         Whether a defendant must object to a probation condition in the sentencing court to preserve an appellate challenge is a question of law.[15] The extent to which a sentencing court must make findings before imposing an uncontested probation condition is also a question of law.[16] When reviewing questions of law, we exercise our independent judgment and adopt those rules of law that are "most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy."[17]


         In Roman v. State, we recognized "that parole conditions must be reasonably related to the rehabilitation of the offender and the protection of the public and must not be unduly restrictive of liberty."[18] The same restrictions apply to probation conditions.[19] At the time of the Roman decision, the constitutional principles of reformation of the offender and protection of the public constituted "the touchstones of penal administration."[20] The Alaska Constitution has since been amended to specify additional principles.[21] Article 1, section 12 now provides in pertinent part: "Criminal administration shall be based upon the following: the need for protecting the public, community condemnation of the offender, the rights of victims of crimes, restitution from the offender, and the principle of reformation." Each component of a criminal sentence - including conditions of probation - must be reasonably related to at least one of these constitutional principles.[22]

         As noted above, Roman also requires that conditions of probation and parole "not be unduly restrictive of liberty."[23] A condition that restricts constitutional rights may "be subject to special scrutiny."[24] For example, a condition restricting internet access must be narrowly tailored;[25] an otherwise warranted restriction may be impermissible if it does not allow a probation or parole officer to authorize necessary internet use under appropriate circumstances.[26] A restriction on the possession of sexually explicit material may be unconstitutionally vague if it is not adequately defined.[27] And a condition that allows a warrantless search must bear "a direct relationship" to the nature of the defendant's conviction.[28]

         It is a sentencing court's obligation to ensure that these requirements are satisfied when imposing probation conditions, [29] as the State concedes. The court "may not delegate this responsibility to the presentence report author, even if the defense does not object."[30] That a sentencing court may only impose probation conditions consistent with Roman does not mean, though, that a sentencing court must make express findings for or otherwise justify each condition on the record. Nor does it furnish an exception to the well-established principle that a "defendant must raise an objection in the trial court in order to preserve that argument for appeal."[31]

         In the present case, the parties and the superior court addressed the proposed probation conditions in accordance with the framework set forth in Alaska Rules of Criminal Procedure 32.1 and 32.2. Rule 32.1(d)(5) requires a defendant to "give notice of any objection to any information contained in the presentence report." Ranstead did so by filing written objections to certain factual assertions and to ten of the special conditions recommended in the report. Rule 32.1(f) provides that "[t]he court shall give the parties the opportunity to present evidence and argument on the disputed factual and legal issues related to sentencing." The superior court afforded the parties such an opportunity here. Ranstead's written objections to the proposed probation conditions contained substantive legal and factual argument, and he did not seek to present additional evidence or argument on the proposed probation conditions at the sentencing hearing.

         Rule 32.1(f)(5) requires that a sentencing court "enter findings regarding any disputed assertion in the presentence report, " and Rule 32.2(c)(1) requires that a sentencing court "state clearly the precise terms of the sentence, the reasons for selecting the particular sentence, and the purposes the sentence is intended to serve." The court in this case complied with these requirements. It addressed all of Ranstead's objections on the record. In overruling these objections, the court made findings where appropriate and stated its reasoning. Further, before imposing the probation conditions and the rest of the sentence, the court discussed and weighed the constitutional sentencing principles in light of the circumstances of the case and noted that it had considered the presentence report and various other sources of information. The Criminal Rules do not require a sentencing court to expressly rule on proposed probation conditions that neither party contests.

         Not only was the procedure followed by the superior court consistent with Rules 32.1 and 32.2, but it also was a fair and orderly method for ruling on the proposed conditions. Our adversary system of justice "is designed around the premise that the parties know what is best for them, and are responsible for advancing the facts and arguments entitling them to relief."[32] Counsel for the defendant and for the State thus have a "role ... in aiding the trial court."[33] When a party objects to proposed probation conditions, it puts the court and the other party on notice that the conditions may be problematic. This enables the other party to marshal evidence and argument in support of the disputed conditions[34] and focuses the sentencing court's attention on the issues that really matter.[35] It also provides an opportunity for the court to ask the probation officer who authored the presentence report to explain the basis for the contested conditions.[36]

         Where, however, no party objects to a proposed probation condition, a sentencing court-having conducted its own review of the condition and found nothing evidently problematic - can sensibly conclude that the condition is reasonably related to the goals of sentencing, not unduly burdensome, and not otherwise illegal. A sentencing court need not address an uncontested condition on the record. The record in the present case is therefore adequate to show that the superior court affirmatively considered all of the proposed probation conditions before imposing them.

         By failing to object to certain proposed conditions of probation, Ranstead failed to preserve an appellate challenge to those conditions.[37] "No procedural principle is more familiar" than that a right "may be forfeited in criminal as well as civil cases by the failure to make timely assertion of the right before a tribunal having jurisdiction to determine it."[38] The requirement of timely objection "is not some arbitrary rule imposed by irascible appellate judges for the purpose of shielding themselves from work."[39]Rather, the requirement serves important judicial policies. It ensures that "litigation in the trial court remains the 'main event' (as opposed to the appeal)."[40] It allows the opposing party to respond to the objection with evidence and argument.[41] It provides the trial court an opportunity to promptly correct the alleged error.[42] And it ensures that there is both a ruling and a developed factual record for the appellate court to review.[43]

         There is no reason to deviate from the timely objection rule here as the foregoing policy motivations all apply in the sentencing context. Indeed, there are additional considerations that apply in this context. As the State points out, "[u]nlike during trial, a defense attorney need not make a split-second decision whether to object" to proposed probation conditions; rather, the attorney has an opportunity to review the presentence report before the sentencing hearing and file written obj ections. We can thus rely on defense counsel to protect a defendant's interests at sentencing.

         More importantly, in deciding whether to impose proposed probation conditions, a sentencing court is unlikely to consider each condition in a vacuum. The conditions may be interrelated and mutually supporting.[44] This appears to be the case here, where, for example, the probation officer recommended - and the court imposed - a battery of conditions related to Ranstead's substance abuse problem: conditions requiring Ranstead to abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs, submit to a drug test or a physical search for drugs and alcohol at the request of a probation officer, not enter bars, and complete substance abuse treatment if such treatment is recommended by an appropriate professional.

         Further, some probation conditions are chosen to protect the public and ensure rehabilitation of the offender; a sentencing court likely takes these conditions and their probable effectiveness into account in deciding the length of a defendant's sentence.[45] Under current double jeopardy doctrine, a trial court may be precluded from increasing the length of a sentence post-appeal to account for any probation conditions struck down by an appellate court.[46] Allowing a defendant to attack conditions of probation piecemeal on appeal without first bringing the purported errors to the attention of the sentencing court may thus undermine the sentencing court's well-considered schema. It could also encourage defendants to strategically withhold objections in the hope of obtaining a short sentence without the restrictive probation conditions meant to support it.[47]

         Although Ranstead failed to preserve in the sentencing court challenges to a number of probation conditions, the court of appeals may still review those conditions for plain error.[48] Under the plain error test, an appellate court may grant relief from an improper probation condition if the sentencing court erred in imposing it and if this error "(1) was not the result of intelligent waiver or a tactical decision not to object; (2) was obvious; (3) affected substantial rights; and (4) was prejudicial."[49] Thus, for example, an appellate court can reverse a probation condition that is plainly contrary to Roman where the error is prejudicial, affects substantial rights, and was not the product of an intelligent waiver or tactical choice. If the error in the probation ...

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