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State v. Le

Supreme Court of Montana

April 11, 2017

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
TAM THANH LE, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: March 8, 2017

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Seventh Judicial District, In and For the County of Dawson, Cause No. DC 15-067 Honorable Richard A. Simonton, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Penelope S. Strong

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Katie F. Schulz, Olivia Rieger

          Jim Rice Justice

         ¶1 Defendant, Tam Thanh Le (Le), appeals from the sentence imposed by the Seventh Judicial District Court, Dawson County, for his conviction of Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs, which included a $15, 000 fine imposed pursuant to § 45-9-130, MCA. We affirm and address the following issue:

         Did the District Court err by imposing an illegal sentence?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 On July 12, 2015, Highway Patrolman Barry Kilpela stopped Le's vehicle for speeding on Interstate 94 in Dawson County, Montana. During the stop, Officer Kilpela formed a suspicion that Le was involved in illegal narcotics activity and, after issuing a warning for speeding, asked Le if he would open the back hatch of the vehicle. Le consented and opened the hatch, revealing a "large blocky shaped bag." When Kilpela asked what was in the bag, Le stated, "Um, some sort of stuff." Le opened the bag and Kilpela observed several vacuum-sealed bags of what he believed to be marijuana. Officer Kilpela placed Le under arrest and seized Le's vehicle. Law enforcement executed a search warrant on the vehicle, discovering 30 vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana weighing a total of 23 pounds.

         ¶3 Le was charged with Criminal Distribution of Dangerous Drugs with Intent to Distribute, a felony, in violation of § 45-9-103, MCA. Le conducted plea negotiations with the State, resulting in a plea agreement. Pursuant to the agreement, the State moved to amend the charge to Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs, a felony, in violation of § 45-9-102, MCA. The Amended Information advised that Le could face five years of imprisonment in the state prison, be fined up to $50, 000, or both, but did not mention the imposition of a fine under § 45-9-130, MCA, based upon the market value of the marijuana he possessed.

         ¶4 At the change of plea hearing, Le filed an Acknowledgment of Waiver of Rights, acknowledging the charged offense and possible penalty. Prior to Le entering a plea, the District Court informed Le that "[t]he maximum penalty for that charge is up to five years in prison and a $50, 000 fine plus a penalty of 35 percent of the market value of the drugs." Le stated that he understood the possible maximum penalties and entered a plea of guilty to the charged offense.[1]

         ¶5 Prior to the sentencing hearing, Le filed an objection to imposition of a fine under § 45-9-130, MCA, on the grounds, relevant to the appeal, that the fine violated the "Apprendi doctrine, " based on Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 120 S.Ct. 2348 (2000), and § 46-1-401, MCA, Montana's statutory counterpart to the Apprendi decision, and that it constituted an excessive penalty prohibited by the Montana and U.S. Constitutions.[2]

         ¶6 At the sentencing hearing, the District Court denied Le's sentencing objections and heard testimony regarding the value of the marijuana Le was convicted of possessing. The court imposed a six-year deferred sentence, with a $1, 500 fine to be paid to the Eastern Montana Drug Task Force, and a $15, 000 fine pursuant to § 45-9-130, MCA. Le appeals the imposition of the $15, 000 fine.

         STANDARD ...


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