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R.C. v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

November 23, 2018

R.C., a minor, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3AN-14-111 DL, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Kevin M. Saxby, Judge, and Sidney Billingslea, Magistrate Judge.

          Laurence Blakely, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Eric A. Ringsmuth, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]


          ALLARD JUDGE

         When R.C. was fifteen years old, he and another juvenile started a fire on the playground of an elementary school in Anchorage, causing extensive damage. R.C. returned to the playground later that same day and started another fire by himself.

         R.C. admitted his conduct and was adjudicated a delinquent minor. Following a restitution hearing, the court ordered R.C. to pay $ 159, 161.17 in restitution to the school district and its insurance company.

         On appeal, R.C. argues that the trial court erred in failing to consider his ability to pay when it ordered this restitution amount. R, C.'s case requires us to resolve a question of statutory interpretation that we discussed (but did not resolve) in W.S. v. State-whether AS 12.55.045(g), the statutory provision in Title 12 that prohibits trial courts from considering a criminal defendant's ability to pay when determining the amount of restitution in a criminal case, applies equally to restitution determinations in juvenile court.[1]

         For the reasons explained here, we conclude that AS 12.55.045(g)'s prohibition does not apply to juvenile delinquency cases. The trial court was therefore authorized to consider R.C.'s ability to pay when setting the amount of restitution that R.C. would personally be obligated to pay. Because the record does not establish that the trial court understood it could take R, C.'s limited ability to pay into account when determining the amount of restitution that R.C. would owe, we vacate the current restitution judgment, and we remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         Background facts and prior proceedings

         Early on the morning of July 26, 2014, fifteen-year-old R.C. and his friend, L.G. started a fire on the playground of Willowcrest Elementary School in Anchorage. Later that afternoon, R.C. returned and started a second fire on the playground by himself. Both R.C. and L.G. admitted the charges of attempted third-degree criminal mischief and second-degree criminally negligent burning, and they were adjudicated delinquent minors.[2]

         During the restitution proceedings, the State argued that each juvenile (and their respective parents) should be jointly and severally liable for the full amount of damages caused by their actions. The State therefore asked the court to find L.G. and his parents jointly and severally liable for $ 108, 325.92 (the amount of damage caused by the first fire), and to find R.C. and his parents jointly and severally liable for $159, 161.17 (the amount of damage caused by both fires).[3]

         R.C.' s attorney objected to R.C. being personally liable for the full amount of restitution. The attorney argued, in particular, that R.C. did "not have any savings or the ability to earn any money," and he asserted that restitution should be set at an amount that R.C. could "realistically" pay during his juvenile probationary period. In support of his attorney's argument, R.C. testified at the restitution hearing that he had never held a job before and he was not sure how much money was in his bank account. (It was later determined that the bank account contained around $ 100.) R.C. indicated that he wanted to pay restitution, and he thought he might be able to get a job at Subway. R.C. also indicated that eventually he hoped to work in construction, doing drywall.

         Magistrate Judge Sidney Billingslea presided as a master over the restitution hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, she issued a report and recommendation on restitution for R.C. This report detailed R, C.'s limited assets in a section entitled "Minor's ability to pay." The report also recommended that the superior court order the Department of Law to set up a payment schedule that addressed R.C.'s ability to pay. But the report otherwise adopted the State's proposed restitution orders, and made no adjustment to the amount of restitution that R.C. would personally owe.

         The superior court adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation and ordered the full restitution requested by the State.

         Thus, under the current restitution order, R.C. is jointly and severally liable with his parents for $ 15 9, 161.17 in restitution. He also shares joint and several liability with L.G. and L.G.'s parents for $108, 325.92 of that amount. Although R.C.'s liability is joint with these other parties, R.C. will remain personally liable for whatever remains to be paid until the full amount is paid.[4] This personal liability will continue into R, C.'s adult life, and when R.C. reaches adulthood the restitution judgment can be enforced through the civil process.[5]

         R.C. now appeals, arguing that the trial court erred when it failed to consider his limited ability to pay when setting the amount of restitution R.C. would personally owe. We note that R, C.'s parents filed a separate appeal challenging their restitution judgment. But this appeal was dismissed after R, C.'s parents negotiated a private settlement with the school district for an undisclosed restitution amount. It is unknown whether L.G. or L.G.' s parents have negotiated similar settlements. However, for purposes of our analysis here, R.C.'s liability for the full $159, 161.17 remains unchanged.[6]

         The State's waiver arguments

         Before we reach the merits of R.C.' s claim on appeal, we must first address the State's argument that R.C. waived this claim by failing to adequately argue it in the restitution proceedings.

         The purpose of the rule requiring parties to preserve an argument in the trial court is to ensure that the trial court has the opportunity to respond to the argument, and to ensure that there is a sufficient legal ruling and factual record to allow meaningful review by the appellate court.[7]

         Here, R.C. argued that he did not have the ability to pay the full restitution amount requested by the State, and he requested that restitution be set in an amount that he could realistically be expected to pay. This same argument was also presented, in more detail, in his co-defendant L.G.'s brief. L.G.'s attorney also raised many of the same legal arguments raised here. Although R.C. did not explicitly join L.G.'s "ability to pay" argument, R.C.'s parents did. Moreover, the magistrate judge issued nearly identical restitution reports for R.C. and L.G., documenting their assets in sections entitled "Minor's ability to pay." Given all this, we conclude that the trial court had adequate notice of the arguments that R.C. now raises in this appeal, and there is a sufficient record for us to meaningfully review this question of law.

         The State also argues that we should reject R. C.' s claim under the doctrine of invited error. We find no merit to this argument. The State's invited error argument is based on one sentence in R, C.'s opposition to the State's restitution memorandum, in which R.C. stated that "suitable restitution" for purposes of the juvenile delinquency statutes "is essentially the restitution imposed in adult criminal cases." As we have previously emphasized, the invited error doctrine only comes into play "when the trial court takes erroneous action at the request of the party claiming error on appeal."[8] From our review of the restitution record, it is apparent that the court did not interpret this sentence in R.C.'s pleading as a concession by R.C. that his ability to pay could not be considered in determining the amount of restitution. The invited error doctrine is therefore inapplicable.

         Lastly, the State argues that R.C.' s claim is moot because (according to the State) the court did properly consider R, C.'s ability to pay in setting the restitution amount. The State points out that the magistrate judge was clearly aware of R.C.'s limited ability to pay because she documented R.C.'s limited earning potential in her report, and because she recommended that payment schedules be set up for each party in accordance with their individual ability to pay.

         But the question before us in this appeal is whether the trial court had the authority to take into account R.C.' s limited financial resources when setting the amount of restitution that R.C. would personally owe, not just how that limited ability to pay should impact his payment schedule.[9] We previously addressed this question in W.S. v. State, a decision from 2008.[10] However, in that case, we concluded that we did not need to resolve this question of statutory interpretation because the restitution at issue in W.S. - $3, 185 - was well within the minor's ability to pay.[11]

         The same cannot be said of the restitution amount in R.C.' s case. Here, the restitution amount is $159, 161.17, far above what R.C. could ever realistically be expected to pay in the discernible future given the evidence R.C. submitted regarding his financial status and limited future earning potential. Accordingly, we do not find the question of whether the trial court has any authority to reduce this amount based on R.C.'s demonstrated inability to pay a moot question.

         Why we conclude that the statutory prohibition against considering a criminal defendant's ability to pay does not apply to restitution judgments in juvenile delinquency cases

         When we interpret a statute, our task is "to ascertain the legislature's intent and then to construe the statute so as to implement that intent."[12] To ascertain that intent, we are required to look at the plain meaning of the statute's language, its legislative history, and its purpose.[13] Moreover, where there is an ambiguity in the definition of a word or phrase, "Alaska courts apply a sliding scale approach to statutory interpretation, which considers the legislative history of a statute and whether that history reveals a legislative intent and meaning contrary to the plain meaning of the statute."[14]

         Chapter AS 12.55 governs sentencing in criminal proceedings in Alaska. Chapter AS 47.12 governs juvenile delinquency proceedings. Alaska Statute 12.55.-045(g) declares, "The court may not, in ordering the amount of restitution, consider the defendant's ability to pay." This prohibition was enacted in 2004, and it has since been upheld as constitutional by this Court.[15] Prior to the enactment of this provision, Chapter 12.55 permitted courts to consider a defendant's ability to pay when setting the amount of restitution in certain situations.[16]

         There is no provision equivalent to AS 12.55.045(g) in AS 47.12. Instead, AS 47.12.120(b)(4) provides that a court shall order a minor and the minor's parents to make "suitable restitution" following the adjudication of a minor as delinquent. The term "suitable restitution" is not defined in the statute. However, there is some statutory guidance regarding how "suitable restitution" should be determined in this context.

         Under AS 47.12.120(b)(4)(A), "the court may require the minor to use the services of a community dispute resolution center that has been recognized by the commissioner under AS 47.12.450(b) to resolve any dispute between the minor and the victim of the minor's offense as to the amount of or manner of payment of the restitution." (Emphasis added). Similarly, under AS 47.12.120(b)(4)(C), the court has the authority to obtain financial information from the minor and the minor's parents ...

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