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State v. Tofelogo

Supreme Court of Alaska

June 28, 2019

STATE OF ALASKA, Petitioner,
v.
TEILA V. TOFELOGO, Respondent.

          Petition for Hearing from the Court of Appeals No. A-12542 of the State of Alaska, on appeal from the Superior Court No. 3KO-14-00688 CRof the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Kodiak, Steve W. Cole, Judge.

          Diane L. Wendlandt, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Petitioner.

          Emily Jura, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Respondent.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          MAASSEN, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A man accidentally killed his roommate with a large knife while demonstrating martial arts moves. He pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and stipulated to the applicability of a statutory aggravator that allows sentencing above the upper range when a crime is "committed against... a member of the social unit made up of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant."[1] On appeal of the sentence, the defendant argued that the aggravator was inappropriate in the context of his case. The court of appeals agreed, concluding that the aggravator is limited to cases in which the defendant's conduct was specifically directed at the victim and had some source in the relationship between the victim and the defendant.[2]

         We granted the State of Alaska's petition for hearing. Because we conclude that the aggravator applies to the facts of this case and the sentencing court was not clearly mistaken in giving it some weight, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Teila Tofelogo lived in a group home that provided a sober living environment for men in recovery. According to the later findings by the sentencing court, on an afternoon in November 2016 Tofelogo was "horseplaying" with what he called a "ninja knife," swinging it around while his roommate, Dennis Fathke, sat on a bed behind him. Tofelogo failed to notice when Fathke stood up and came closer, and, while making a turn with the knife, Tofelogo accidentally stabbed Fathke through the bicep and into his chest. Tofelogo summoned help and attempted to administer first aid, but Fathke died soon afterward.

         Tofelogo pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and stipulated to the applicability of AS l2.55.l55(c)(l8)(A), an aggravating factor that allows sentencing above the presumptive range if "the offense was a felony . . . specified in AS 11.41 ['Offenses Against the Person'] and was committed against a spouse, a former spouse, or a member of the social unit made up of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant." Tofelogo argued, however, that the aggravator should be given "little to no weight" because his conduct did "not fall into the pattern of abusive and threatening conduct typified in a domestic violence case."

         The superior court sentenced Tofelogo to six years imprisonment with four suspended; the composite sentence, including the suspended time, was above the presumptive term of one to three years for first-felony negligent homicide.[3] The increased sentence was allowed by the applicability of the aggravator, which raised the upper limit to ten years.[4] The court said it was giving the aggravator "some weight" but "not a tremendous, [not] a lot of weight." The court noted the prevalence of domestic violence in the community, the state, and "the whole world," observing that it involves not just intra-family violence but "also includes people who are living together such as here." The court said that it would have given the factor much more weight if the offense had occurred in a more typical domestic setting - "if this offense had been committed by the defendant against his spouse, his girlfriend, his own parents, [or] his children." But despite the lack of a family relationship, the court declined to give the factor no weight at all; the court cited a "right to feel safe and secure in our own homes without someone who is living amongst us hurting us or killing us, and it doesn't have to necessarily be someone that we're related to."

         Tofelogo appealed his sentence to the court of appeals, arguing, as relevant here, that aggravator (c)(l 8)(A) was inappropriate in the context of his case.[5] The court of appeals agreed, reasoning that the aggravator was intended to apply to crimes of domestic violence in which "the identity of the victim and the victim's relationship to the defendant [bear on] the blameworthiness of the defendant's conduct or the defendant's degree of dangerousness."[6] Concluding that Tofelogo's crime was not the kind the aggravator was intended to address, the court of appeals held that the sentencing court erred in giving the factor any weight at all.[7]

         The State petitioned for hearing, and we granted review.

         III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         "The existence or non-existence of an aggravating or mitigating factor is a mixed question of law and fact."[8] Determining whether the factor applies "involves a two-step process: the court must (1) assess the nature of the defendant's conduct, a factual finding, and then (2) make the legal determination of whether that conduct falls within the statutory standard."[9] "Any factual findings made by the court regarding the nature of the defendant's conduct are reviewed for clear error, but whether those facts establish that the conduct" falls within the factor's ambit "is a legal question."[10] In interpreting the scope of an aggravating factor, we apply our independent judgment, interpreting the statute "according to reason, practicality, and common sense, considering the meaning of the statute's language, its legislative history, and its purpose."[11]

         If a factor is found to apply, the amount of weight to give it is committed to the sentencing court's discretion.[12] "[W]hen the issue is one of sentencing discretion - whether and how much a defendant's sentence should be adjusted on account of an aggravating or mitigating factor-we will employ the 'clearly mistaken' standard of review."[13] Under this standard "the sentence will be modified only in those instances where the reviewing court is convinced that the sentencing court was clearly mistaken in imposing a particular sentence."[14] In making such a determination, we independently review the record.[15]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Aggravator (c)(18)(A) By Its Plain Language Applies To Tofelogo's Crime.

         Alaska Statute 12.55.155(c) lists factors that "shall be considered by the sentencing court if proven in accordance with this section"[16] and that "may allow imposition of a sentence above the presumptive range set out in AS 12.55.125." These so-called aggravators include the one central to this appeal: "the offense was a felony . . . specified in AS 11.41 ['Offenses Against the Person'] and was committed against a spouse, a former spouse, or a member of the social unit made up of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant."[17] Tofelogo stipulated to the applicability of this factor in his plea agreement, and by its terms it appears to apply. Tofelogo agreed to plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide, a felony "specified in AS 11.4l";[18] moreover, the crime "was committed against" his roommate, ostensibly "a member of the social unit made up of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant."[19] The superior court gave this stipulated factor "some weight" in sentencing.

         For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the superior court correctly applied the aggravator to the facts of this case, and that the weight the court gave the aggravator did not result in a sentence that is clearly mistaken.

         B. The Court Of Appeals Rejected A Literal Reading Of Aggravator (c)(18)(A).

         The court of appeals agreed that "Tofelogo's case falls within the literal wording of aggravator (c)(18)(A)."[20] It nevertheless concluded that "the rationale of this aggravator does not apply to the facts of Tofelogo's case, and the sentencing judge should not have given the aggravator any weight."[21] The court began its analysis by stating that "[t]he crimes covered by aggravator (c)(l8)(A) are a subset of the larger category of'crimes involving domestic violence' -the category of offenses defined by AS 18.66.990(3) and (5)."[22] The court determined that the aggravator was therefore "based on the same rationale that prompted the legislature to enact the definition of 'crime involving domestic violence': the policy of altering various provisions of law to facilitate the prosecution and punishment of crimes that occur between people who are involved with or related to each other in specified ways."[23]

         The court of appeals then discussed past decisions in which, analyzing the definition of "crime involving domestic violence," it had "pointed out that the literal wording of this definition encompasses more situations than the legislature intended-situations where it does not make any sense to treat a crime differently based on the relationship between the defendant and the victim."[24] The court cited both Carpentino v. State[25] and Bingaman v. State, [26] in which it had explained that the legislature's broad definition of "domestic violence," if read "literally, ... would cover many instances where the specified relationship between the defendant and the victim is irrelevant to assessing whether the defendant is atypically dangerous or whether the defendant's conduct is atypically blameworthy."[27] The court posed hypotheticals showing the definition's potential overbreadth: for example, an automobile accident that is categorized as a crime of domestic violence only because the victim, by chance, happens to fall under the broad definition of "household members" (the victim in the example is "the child of a former high school sweetheart").[28] The court concluded that such a result would contravene the "social policy underlying" the (c)(18)(A) aggravator: "to authorize courts to impose more severe sentences on defendants whose relationship to their victim makes the crime more blameworthy" e.g., spouses and former spouses.[29]Referring to the aggravator's additional inclusion of "a member of the social unit made of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant," the court cautioned that if it were "[interpreted literally," it "would apply to a defendant who was convicted of felony assault for causing a traffic accident that resulted in injuries to other people" who included, "by chance, ... the defendant's former spouse, or... another resident of the defendant's dormitory or barracks."[30] In such a case, the court reasoned, "the rationale behind aggravator (c)(l8)(A) does not apply - because the identity of the victim and the victim's relationship to the defendant have essentially no bearing on the blameworthiness of the defendant's conduct or the defendant's degree of dangerousness."[31]

         Summarizing, the court of appeals cited its earlier observation that "the 'hallmark' of domestic violence is conduct whose purpose is 'to coerce, control, punish, intimidate, or exact revenge within the context of an intimate relationship.' "[32] Crimes of domestic violence "are all implicitly premised on the assumptions that the defendant's conduct was directed at the victim, and that [their relationship] provided a motivation for the crime, or . . . made the victim more vulnerable, or . . . was otherwise a significant contributing factor in the crime."[33] Concluding that these "assumptions do not apply to Tofelogo's case," the court held that "the sentencing judge should not have given the aggravator any weight."[34]

         C. The Plain Language Of Aggravator (c)(18)(A) Shows A Reasonable Purpose Not Contradicted By Legislative History.

         Our disagreement with the court of appeals centers on its conclusion that aggravator (c)(l8)(A) cannot be interpreted literally consistent with its purpose. We begin with the statutory language itself; we agree with the court of appeals that read literally it applies to Tofelogo's case.[35] As for the statute's purpose, the language reasonably implies a legislative intent to make more blameworthy crimes committed against not only spouses and former spouses but also persons in their own living spaces - where they may legitimately have a heightened expectation of safety and security, [36] especially with regard to danger from members of their own "social unit."[37]Such a purpose - grounded in the language the legislature chose to use-is reasonable in and of itself. Finding a reasonable purpose does not require us to add implicit requirements such as those the court of appeals read into the aggravator: that the defendant and the victim also share a special, intimate, spouse-like relationship, and that the crime arose out of that relationship.[38] In fact, as the State points out, the court of appeals has in the past affirmed sentencing courts' application of aggravator (c)(l 8)(A) to living situations that did not have those characteristics.[39]

         We follow a "sliding scale approach to statutory interpretation, in which 'the plainer the statutory language is, the more convincing the evidence of contrary legislative purpose or intent must be.' "[40] To support the court of appeals' interpretation of (c)(18)(A), Tofelogo cites the legislative commentary that accompanied the aggravator's passage. The legislature noted that the factor

is applicable to crimes involving domestic violence. Its scope is restricted to crimes against the person (AS 11.41) directed against a spouse, a former spouse or a member of the social unit comprised of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant. Its addition reflects a legislative determination that crimes against the person involving ...

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