Youth as Mitigating Factor

In State v. Solis-Diaz, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that a juvenile defendant who was tried as an adult for numerous violent felony crimes involving firearms is entitled to a sentencing at which the judge must conduct a meaningful, individualized inquiry into whether the defendant’s youth should mitigate his sentence.

Solis-Diaz was 16 years old in 2007, when he participated in a gang related drive-by shooting in Centralia. He was charged with six counts of Assault in the First Degree, each with a firearm sentencing enhancement; one count of Drive-by Shooting; and one count of Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the Second Degree. He was tried as an adult. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and the trial court imposed a sentence of 1,111 months in prison.

Solis-Diaz requested an exceptional downward sentence on grounds that the multiple offense policy of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA) operated to impose a clearly excessive sentence and that Solis-Diaz’s age indicated diminished capacity to understand the wrongfulness and consequences of his actions. The judge denied the request and again imposed a standard-range sentence of 1,111 months in prison. Solis Diaz appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that under the SRA, a sentencing court must generally sentence a defendant within the standard range. Pursuant to the SRA’s multiple offense policy, standard range sentences for multiple serious violent offenses are to be served consecutively and not concurrently.

This is important. For those who don’t know, a consecutive sentence is when a defendant has been convicted of more than one crime, usually at the same trial, and the sentences for each crime are “tacked” together, so that sentences are served one after the other. In contrast, a concurrent sentence is when sentences on more than one crime “run” or are served at the same time, rather than one after the other. For instance, if a defendant’s three crimes carry sentences of five, three, and two years, the maximum time he’ll spend in jail is five years.

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that a court may impose an exceptional sentence below the standard range if it finds that mitigating circumstances are established by a preponderance of the evidence. One such mitigating circumstance exists if the operation of the multiple offense policy results in a presumptive sentence that is clearly excessive.  When the resulting set of consecutive sentences is so clearly excessive under the circumstances that it provides “‘substantial and compelling reasons’” for an exceptional sentence below the standard range, the sentencing court may grant that exceptional downward sentence.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals relied on the WA Supreme Court’s recent decision in State v. O’Dell. In that decision, and similar to the defendant here, O’Dell was a juvenile who was also tried and sentenced as an adult to a very serious felony crime (rape, in O’Dell’s case). At O’Dell’s sentencing, the trial court ruled that it could not consider O’Dell’s age as a mitigating circumstance and imposed a standard range sentence of 95 months.  The Supreme Court disagreed with O’Dell’s trial court: “[I]n light of what we know today about adolescents’ cognitive and emotional development, we conclude that youth may, in fact, “relate to a defendant’s crime.”

The Court of Appeals followed O’Dell and said the following:

“The same logic and policy that led the Supreme Court to require the consideration of the youth of a young adult offender would apply with magnified force to require the same of Solis-Diaz, who committed his crimes while a juvenile. As did the trial court in O’Dell, the trial court here decided that under Ha’mim it could not consider the defendant’s youth as a mitigating factor in sentencing. As did the trial court in O’Dell, the trial court here abused its discretion in refusing that consideration. Our Supreme Court’s analysis in O’Dell compels the same result: reversal of Solis-Diaz’s sentence and remand for a new sentencing hearing to meaningfully consider whether youth diminished his culpability.”

The WA Court of Appeals even offered a litmus test in making these determinations:

“In short, a sentencing court must take into account the observations underlying Miller, Graham, Roper, and O’Dell that generally show among juveniles a reduced sense of responsibility, increased impetuousness, increased susceptibility to outside pressures, including peer pressure, and a greater claim to forgiveness and time for amendment of life. Against this background, the sentencing court must consider whether youth diminished Soliz-Diaz’s culpability and make an individualized determination whether his “capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law” was meaningfully impaired.”

The WA Court of Appeals concluded that the sentencing court erred in failing to consider whether the operation of the SRA and Solis-Diaz’s youth at the time he committed the crimes should mitigate his standard range sentence and warrant an exceptional downward sentence.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals vacated Solis-Diaz’s sentence and remanded for re-sentencing back to the trial court. The Court of Appeals also noted that Solis-Diaz may move to disqualify the prior sentencing judge.

My opinion? I’m very pleased Division II is embracing O’Dell, an opinion which I’ve discussed in my blog titled, “State v. O’Dell: Court May Consider Defendant’s Youth at Sentencing.” Furthermore, I’m pleased that Division II also offered a workable litmus test in determining these issues juvenile sentencing for adult crimes. Very good. It not only shows the Courts are following O’Dell, they are also supporting it and offering guidelines for future decisions involving juvenile justice.