People v. Allen, 2017 IL App (1st) 151540 (December). Episode 430 (Duration 9:24)
10 and a half years for burglary to a car are reduced to six years because the second division in the first district says so.
You know there’s something juicy when an opinion begins like this:
Appellate courts generally defer to the sentencing judge’s decision. But “generally” does not mean “always,” and “defer” does not mean “acquiesce.” Our sentencing laws must be interpreted in accord with common sense and reason so as to avoid an absurd or unduly harsh sentence. Otherwise we are reduced to little more than a rubber stamp, and that is neither our purpose nor our function.
Frank Allen, who has a record of minor, nonviolent offenses, broke a window of a truck parked in front of a courthouse and then grabbed a hat and two packs of cigarettes.
The truck owner happened to see Allen in the act, and minutes later, Allen was arrested.
Because Allen qualified for Class X sentencing, this minor property offense and theft resulted in 10½ years behind bars.
His Criminal History
Allen, born in 1966, had amassed 11 convictions between 1983 and 2009, including 6 for burglary and 3 for theft.
At the sentencing hearing, the State argued that Allen was “a consistent thief and burglar” and qualified as a Class X offender. Defense counsel argued for a sentence “closer to the minimum” since Allen had mental health issues and the modest stolen property was recovered by the owner.
Abuse of Discretion
We review a sentence within statutory limits for abuse of discretion, and may alter the sentence when it varies greatly from the spirit and purpose of the law or is manifestly disproportionate to the nature of the offense. People v. Snyder, 2011 IL 111382, ¶ 36.
The trial court followed the law: it imposed a sentence within range and considered the appropriate sentencing factors. But, we conclude, the sentence still amounts to an abuse of discretion.
Episode 280 – People v. Busse was caught stealing $44 worth of quarters from a university vending machine.
The trial court sentenced him to 12 years, well above the Class X minimum because Busse had a long history of committing similar vending-machine heists, and his previous stints in jail had not deterred him. We reduced his sentence to 6 years, the minimum for a Class X sentence, as the 12-year sentence did not reflect the seriousness of the offense.
Busse had not harmed or threatened any person during his quest for loose change, and he was not armed with a weapon; this was consistent with his past crimes.
Further, if his past stays in prison had not rehabilitated him, there was no point in imposing yet another lengthy sentence, at incredible expense to the State, simply to punish him for his petty crime. Most important is the offense’s trivial nature and that the 10½-year sentence does not reflect its low level of seriousness.
What We Are Not Doing
We are not substituting our judgment for that of the trial court, or reweighing the factors, when we say that a decade in prison is “greatly at variance with the spirit and purpose of the law” against burglary. While the trial court has discretion in sentencing, the exercise of that discretion has limits and is not “totally unbridled.”
We have not created a new legal rule or mandated that all Class X sentences should be reduced to the minimum; instead, we have applied the law to the circumstances and evidence presented.
If a trial court abuses its discretion in imposing sentence, it is not an option for an appellate court to modify that sentence—it’s our duty to modify it. But even if the legislature chose not to exclude petty thefts, the trial court’s exercise of its discretion to tailor the sentence within the Class X range must be tempered by the amount of harm the defendant inflicted, that is, the seriousness of the offense.
That was not done here.
In the face of a legislative judgment, we do not simply throw up our hands and say that we have no role to play in sentencing. The legislature has created sentencing ranges, and it is the trial court’s job, and then our job, to impose a sentence that is appropriate, just, and proportionate, depending on the nature, seriousness, and character of the offense.
Allen’s criminal history is nonviolent, nonserious, and, over its course, has posed no risk of harm to any individuals.
Allen’s stays in prison have not deterred him from committing low level criminal acts or rehabilitated him, and according to the trial court, Allen cannot be rehabilitated (a conclusion supported by his background and the fact that he committed this crime while on mandatory supervised release).
We cannot see the point in sending Allen to prison (a place whose partial purpose is supposed to be rehabilitation) for a long time if it is unlikely that he will emerge from it better than he was when he entered it.
This makes Allen far less culpable, far less dangerous, and far less deserving of a harsh sentence than one who uses physical force against a person. The 10½-year sentence is not necessary to protect the public.
Damage To The Truck
There is one difference between Busse and Allen, and that is in the damage to the truck.
Busse’s vending-machine theft didn’t damage the machine, which belonged to a university. Allen broke the victim’s truck window, which is a pecuniary inconvenience to Sweis. But Sweis’s window will not be fixed any faster, or less expensively, if Allen spends 10½ years in prison versus 6 years. What Sweis (and other victims of property crime) need from the criminal justice system isn’t an extra four years of punishment for offenders like Allen; Sweis needs restitution, which he is almost certain not to get the longer Allen spends in prison.
The State could have achieved better results by focusing on helping Allen to make Sweis whole, rather than punishing Allen even more severely.
Six years is enough to punish an offender for breaking a truck window and stealing two packs of cigarettes and a cap (which were promptly returned to the owner).
The sentence was “manifestly disproportionate to the nature of the offense” and thus an abuse of discretion. 10 1/2 years does not reflect the offense’s trivial nature. Accordingly, we impose the minimum sentence of six years.
Under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 615, we reduce Allen’s sentence to six years. Sentence reduced.
See The Dissent
We do a disservice to trial judges to find that they have abused their discretion when they apply a statute as written, which is exactly what the trial court did here.
This last point drives home that the majority’s real problem is the application of Class X sentencing provisions to what it considers to be petty criminals (who nonetheless commit felonies)…that the Class X sentencing statute operates as reflexive—an unthinking, mechanical application of laws that were never intended for a defendant such as this.
But that is a decision the legislature has made, and one that we are not at liberty to ignore.
I would affirm Allen’s sentence.