The Missouri Court system is in the early stages of correcting improper felony convictions that were the result of the way a law was written. It started with a 2002 legislative amendment to the state’s criminal code that included misinterpreted wording.
The amendment added an enhancement allowing for stealing to be classified as a felony if “value” was an element of the crime. The wording was problematic because the offense of stealing had no “value” attached to it in the code.
But from 2002 on, people were charged and convicted felony stealing until 2013, when an attorney suspected there were inconsistencies in the law. That case involved Amanda Bazell, who was sentenced to concurrent 12 year prison terms for burglary and stealing firearms.
An August 2016 decision in State vs. Bazell by the Missouri Supreme Court finally identified the flaw in the statute. The court said “stealing” is “not defined to include, as an element of the offense, the value of property or services appropriated”.
Attorney Ellen Flottman, who handled the Bazell case for the Public Defender’s office, says the courts are now going through the process of finding relief for wrongly convicted people.
“That’s what going to be the ultimate remedy for all of the people that get relief under the Bazell decision, is their re-sentence as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, because that’s what Bazell said,” Flottman says. “Bazell said that all of these stealings that were tried and convicted as Class C felonies should have Class A misdemeanors.”
The Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases Wednesday involving similar circumstances. In all three, the defendants pleaded guilty to felony stealing of items worth more than $500. All three defendants were given suspended sentences with probation. And they all had their prison sentences reinstated after numerous parole violations.
Also, after the high court’s Bazell decision, attorney’s for all three defendants filed motions that were successful in getting charges reduced to misdemeanor status.
The Supreme Court is now being asked to determine if circuit courts exceeded their jurisdiction in granting the relief.
Since the Bazell decision last year, lawmakers have rewritten the criminal code, and a new version of the statute for stealing went into effect last January. There’s no ambiguity over felony stealing now. The cases beforehand are a different story.
Flottman says a lot of litigation will take place to determine a path forward after courts and attorneys misinterpreted the law for 15 years.
“Some of them already served their sentences years ago, but have a felony stealing on their record. Some of them are still sitting in prison and have several more years left to serve on a felony that the Supreme Court has said should only have been a misdemeanor. Some of them have pleaded guilty to a stealing that was a felony, and should only have been a misdemeanor.”
Days after the Supreme Court’s Bazell decision, the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office issued a memo stating that there a few classes of stealing felonies that went untouched.
Flottman says there are so many different scenarios of the crime facing so many people that it’s not known if all of them will be granted relief. “We don’t know those thing yet. So there’s a lot of issues to work out. And everybody’s situation is different, and there’s thousands of these people.”
Jackson County chief public defender Ruth Petsch told KCUR radio after the Bazell decision that her office had plead or had trials for at least 10,000 felony stealing cases since 2002, when the language in question was added to the criminal code.
While representing the Platte County prosecuting attorney on Wednesday, attorney Joseph Vanover argued that most charges could not be reduced, even if their cases were given retroactive status.
“The issue of retroactivity is a good one, is an important one that’s been discussed,” said Vanover. “I think we probably end up with the same result if it’s retroactive or not.” Vanover claimed that only cases under current review could be reduced.
In his representation of defendant Robby Ledford on Wednesday, attorney Stuart Huffman argued that his client was wrongly convicted of a felony because courts were misinterpreting the law. “The interpretation at the time was that it was a felony, and unfortunately it was always a misdemeanor offense,” said Huffman.
The seven judge state Supreme Court is considering the argument made Wednesday, as is the case in almost all of its proceedings, will render a decision at an upcoming date.