Arizona v. Gomez – 2/10/2006

February 10, 2006

Arizona Supreme Court Holds that a Dismissed Indictment Does Not Disqualify a Defendant from Mandatory Probation Under Proposition 200.

A 1996 initiative measure titled Proposition 200, A.R.S. 13-901.01, mandates that courts sentence certain first- and second-time drug offenders to probation, rather than incarceration. But the measure includes an exception for any defendant “who has been convicted of or indicted for a violent crime.” Gomez had been indicted for manslaughter in 1994, but the indictment was dismissed because the prosecutor concluded that there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction. In 2003, Gomez was convicted of possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. The trial court ruled that Gomez’ indictment made her ineligible for mandatory probation under Proposition 200. The Court of Appeals agreed, reasoning that the statute’s plain language encompassed all prior indictments. Acknowledging that this was a “plausible” reading of the statute, the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed. The Court noted that under its own and the United States Supreme Court’s caselaw, prior convictions that have been reversed or vacated may not be used to enhance a defendant’s sentence. The Court reasoned that the statute’s reference to indictments might reasonably be read to encompass only indictments that remain active. The Court chose this interpretation, for several reasons. First, Proposition 200’s purpose was to require less costly, but more effective, treatment programs for non-violent drug offenders and to promote the imprisonment of violent offenders – a purpose that would not be well served by an interpretation that would make probation unavailable to many defendants who had not actually committed violent crimes. Second, the alternative interpretation could lead to absurd results, insofar as it would make probation unavailable even when the defendant’s indictment was dismissed because, for example, DNA evidence conclusively established that the defendant was innocent. Third, the alternative interpretation would raise serious due process and equal protection concerns, insofar as it would impose harsh consequences and draw significant distinctions based solely on the fact of indictment, with no inquiry into the underlying facts and circumstances of the indictment. The Court concluded that A.R.S. 13-901.01(B) disqualifies a defendant from mandatory probation only if, at the time of sentencing for the drug offense, the defendant stands convicted of, or is under indictment for, a violent crime.

Vice Chief Justice Berch, joined by Chief Justice McGregor, dissented. Justice Berch agreed with the lower courts’ interpretation, which she did not believe was irrational or likely to lead to absurd or arbitrary results. Justice Berch stressed that an indictment issues only after probable cause has been found. She also noted that even a defendant ineligible for mandatory probation under A.R.S. 13-901.01(B) may establish eligibility for probation through an alternative statutory process.