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State of Montana v. Christopher Robin Lewis

July 24, 2012


APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-First Judicial District, In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DC 10-34 Honorable Jeffrey H. Langton, Presiding Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael E Wheat

Decided: July 24, 2012



Justice Michael E Wheat delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Christopher Robin Lewis (Lewis) appeals from a judgment and commitment entered by the Twenty-First Judicial District, Ravalli County, finding him ineligible for parole during his ten year prison term for aggravated assault. We affirm.


¶2 In March 2010, Lewis was charged with one count of aggravated assault for the abuse of his son L.L. and one count of assault on a minor for the abuse of his other son A.L. Lewis initially pled not guilty to the charges against him. On January 18, 2011, the parties entered an "appropriate plea" agreement, pursuant to § 46-12-211(1)(b), MCA, wherein Lewis agreed to plead either guilty or no contest to the aggravated assault charge in exchange for the State's dismissal of the charge of assault on a minor. The parties further agreed that their separate recommendations for an appropriate sentence would fall within the following range:

The State: The State will recommend a twenty (20) year commitment to Montana State Prison, with ten (10) years suspended.

Defendant: The Defendant may recommend a sentence no less restrictive than a ten (10) year commitment to the Department of Corrections, with five (5) years suspended.

Nothing in the plea agreement addressed the District Court's authority to restrict Lewis' eligibility for parole, and it contained no commitment from the State regarding such a restriction. Section 3 of the plea agreement also provided that the parties were "otherwise free to recommend and argue for any other lawful term of sentence and/or conditions thereto, subject to a final decision by the court."

¶3 The District Court held a change of plea hearing on January 19, 2011. During the hearing, the parties confirmed the terms of and their individual obligations under the plea agreement. The State also stated it would not be seeking a parole restriction. The court then explained to Lewis that, due to the nature of the plea agreement, Lewis could withdraw his plea if the court did not follow the plea agreement. Lewis stated he understood the consequences of the agreement and pled no contest to the charge of aggravated assault.

¶4 The District Court deferred sentencing until after a presentence investigation report (PSI) could be completed. The probation officer who completed the PSI recommended that the court impose a twenty-year commitment to the Department of Corrections (DOC) with fifteen years suspended. The PSI also recommended that Lewis "not be considered eligible for release into the community until he has completed in-patient chemical dependency treatment, anger management, all phases of Cognitive Principles and Restructuring and be assessed for any mental health concerns."

¶5 Lewis took issue with this recommendation, and filed a written sentencing memorandum. In his memorandum, Lewis argued that the court, pursuant to State v. Burch, 2008 MT 118, 342 Mont. 499, 182 P.3d 66, had no authority to impose restrictions on his early release, and that the determination of whether to grant the privilege of early release belonged solely to the DOC. This was Lewis' only argument against imposing a parole restriction; he did not argue that the plea agreement prohibited a parole restriction, that the State agreed such a restriction would not be imposed, or that the court would be required to reject the agreement in order to impose such a restriction.

¶6 On March 23, 2011, the District Court held a sentencing hearing. At the hearing, the State, in accordance with the plea agreement, recommended a sentence of twenty years at the Montana State Prison (MSP) with ten years suspended. The prosecutor also responded to Lewis' sentencing memorandum and stated that § 46-18-202(2), MCA, authorizes a district court to reasonably restrict a defendant's parole eligibility, but made no recommendation to the court regarding Lewis' parole eligibility. Instead, the prosecutor explicitly stated that he would leave the decision of whether to impose a parole restriction to the discretion of the court. Defense counsel once again argued that the court should impose a DOC sentence, and that the court was not authorized to impose any restrictions on the DOC's ability to release Lewis early under such a commitment.

¶7 The District Court accepted the plea agreement, and imposed a twenty-year commitment to MSP with ten years suspended, but ordered that Lewis serve the MSP commitment "without benefit of parole." The court's conclusion was "based on the severity of what occurred and the utter helpless nature of the victim," and it believed that Lewis "should be given the most severe sanction" within the limits of the plea agreement. Beyond this, the court did not discuss its specific reasons for imposing the parole ineligibility restriction.*fn1 Although a District Court is required to set forth its reasons for imposing a parole restriction pursuant to § 46-18-202(2), MCA, Lewis never objected to his sentence for this reason.

ΒΆ8 Lewis did, however, make one objection to his sentence. He objected on the grounds that the District Court had exceeded the bounds of the plea agreement by declaring Lewis ineligible for parole. In response, the sentencing judge stated that the plea agreement "didn't address parole eligibility," which permitted the court "to impose parole restrictions up to and including the entire sentence." Defense Counsel then admitted ...

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