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State v. Walter

Supreme Court of Montana

December 4, 2018

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
BRIAN KEITH WALTER, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: October 17, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DC 15-672 Honorable Mary Jane Knisely, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Moses Okeyo, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Roy Brown, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Scott Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Ingrid A. Rosenquist, Deputy County Attorney, Billings, Montana

          OPINION

          MIKE MCGRATH, CHIEF JUSTICE

         ¶1 Brian Keith Walter appeals from a July 19, 2016 Thirteenth Judicial District Court judgment sentencing him to five years in the Montana State Prison. We reverse.

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

         Was Walter prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 On July 16, 2015, the State charged Brian Keith Walter with Criminal Possession of Dangerous drugs, a felony, in violation of § 45-9-102(6), MCA (2015); Criminal Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, a misdemeanor, in violation of § 45-10-103, MCA; and Obstructing a Peace Officer, a misdemeanor, in violation of § 45-7-302, MCA. Walter eventually pleaded guilty to all three charges without entering into a plea agreement.

         ¶4 The State sought to have Walter sentenced as a Persistent Felony Offender ("PFO") pursuant to §§ 46-18-501 and -502, MCA (2015), which include mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.[1] Defense counsel argued in a sentencing memorandum that the PFO statutes were inapplicable because a more specific statute, § 45-9-102(7), MCA (2015), controlled over the general PFO statutes. Section 45-9-102(7), MCA (2015), presumes that a first-time drug offender is entitled to a deferred sentence. Accordingly, defense counsel recommended imposition of a deferred sentence.

         ¶5 The State argued that the mandatory minimum PFO sentence was compulsory because the prerequisites had been met and, in the State's view, the only available exception to the PFO sentence, § 46-18-222, MCA, was inapplicable. The State asserted that Walter "must be incarcerated for at least five years" pursuant to the PFO statute.

         ¶6 The District Court heard argument as to whether the PFO sentence was mandatory for Walter, or whether there was legal authority allowing for sentencing discretion. The District Court considered the question to be a "novel legal issue" and noted:

I do not think that there is a Montana Supreme Court case on point in this situation. Typically, someone on a first offense drug possession charge is entitled to a deferred imposition of sentence; in this scenario, the Defendant had a prior felony, and the State has filed a PFO designation in this case. The two statutes are certainly in conflict. They are distinguishable from the DUI statutes which specifically prohibit a deferred sentence on a DUI, however, I ...

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