The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City is considering cases in which lower courts mistakenly imposed additional probation terms on defendants.
Gary Sampson of southern Missouri’s Phelps County had no attorney to consult with when he was given an invalid third term of probation. Supreme Court Judge Brent Powell found the predicament troubling during arguments Wednesday. “No one told the trial court that it screwed up,” said Powell. “And if that’s the case, that’s why I’m troubled.”
Missouri law limits probation to two terms. The high court is considering whether Sampson should be released from probation and whether another defendant, Trevor Griffith, should be released from prison because of lower court probation errors.
Griffith was convicted of felony drug dealing while Sampson was found guilty of a less severe felony, possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana.
Both defendants were given suspended prison sentences and placed on probation. Both went through 120-day Institutional Substance Use Disorders Programs after violating their probation conditions. Sampson admitted to smoking marijuana while Griffith’s was sent to prison at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking for teaching others in the substance program how to beat drug tests and for smoking K2 (synthetic marijuana).
In its Supreme Court argument, the state noted that Griffith did not object beforehand to having a third probation term imposed on him. During Wednesday’s high court hearing, Griffith’s attorney, Public Defender Jedd Schneider, said the fact that Griffith didn’t complain about the errant third term doesn’t empower the court to enforce it.
“Even if he was consenting to probation to a third term, that doesn’t automatically grant the trial court inherent power to place him on that term,” said Schneider. “There’s nothing in the statute to say that it could.”
After being incarcerated in November 2014, Griffith’s attorneys filed a legal action, known as a habeas petition, against the warden of the prison in Licking, with the purpose of having him freed from custody.
The petition was filed in March 2017, more than two years after his incarceration. The state is arguing that there’s a one-year statute of limitations for such action, claiming a one-year window for offenders to sue any employee of the Missouri Department of Corrections.
In addition, the state is arguing that Griffith’s prison sentence was properly executed during his second term of probation, not the invalid third term. In court documents, the state put forth that the current litigation is not a third term of probation court case.
The state, while acknowledging the circuit court does not have the authority to order a third term, maintains Griffith was sent to prison during his second term. Griffith was first convicted in 2010 and given his second five-year term of probation February 3, 2012.
Patrick Logan with the Missouri Attorney General’s office noted during Wednesday’s hearing that Griffith’s second term would have ended on February 3, 2017, meaning the date he was incarcerated in November 2014 was well within the window of the second term.
Schneider, the public defender representing Griffith, argued Tuesday that the court lost its authority to take any action when it when it revoked his second term of probation. That action took place in February 2013 when the court gave Griffith another suspended prison sentence and placed him on his third probation term.
Schneider claimed the lower court forfeited its control over the defendant when it revoked the second probation. “I believe that once the second probation term is revoked, it is not only terminated but it’s annulled, canceled,” said Schneider. “It’s as if it never existed.”
In the case of Gary Sampson, the defendant pleaded guilty to marijuana possession charges in November 2012. Like Griffith, Sampson was erroneously given a third term of probation after violating conditions of his probation twice. His second five-year probation term began in November 2013.
Over time, Sampson: admitted to using methamphetamine and marijuana in November 2014, committed other probation violations by failing to keep up with various fees totaling almost $6,500, lost employment due to a lack of transportation, admitted to smoking marijuana in March 2017 and was charged with stealing for the fourth time in ten years in April 2017.
Complicating Sampson’s predicament were numerous court appearances without an attorney. His Public Defender attorney Wednesday before the Supreme Court, Katherine Schmidt, argued that he should have been discharged from probation in 2017 after accumulating 20 months of earned compliance credits.
The Board of Probation and Parole awards earned compliance credits (ECCs) to offenders who remain in compliance with the terms of their probation.
Schmidt claimed the 20 months of credit Sampson needed to be released from the second term of probation were wrongly applied to his invalid third term. She argued for Sampson to be discharged from probation because if the EECs were applied to the second term, his probation would’ve expired at the end of July 2017.
The state contends because of various probation violations and placement in treatment programs, Sampson’s EECs before 2015 were properly rescinded. Logan with the Missouri Attorney General’s office, who also represented the state in the Supreme Court proceedings for Sampson, asked the court to send the case to a hearing to determine if the original five-year prison sentence should be imposed.
The high bench will deliberate both the Sampson and Griffith probation cases and could hand down decisions at any time.