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Fielding v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 26, 2018

ALFRED FIELDING
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case Nos. CT16-0294X, CT16-0295X

          Wright, Kehoe, Battaglia, Lynne A. Senior Judge, Specially Assigned, JJ.

          OPINION

          BATTAGLIA, JUDGE

         Whether the District Court is divested of its exclusive original jurisdiction over the charge of driving under the influence by the State's filing, in the circuit court, of a notice of intent to seek enhanced penalties as a subsequent offender is the question under consideration in the present appeal. We shall answer that question in the negative and, accordingly, shall vacate the judgments and remand with instructions to grant the motion to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND

         On two separate occasions, in August 2015, and November 2015, Alfred Fielding, appellant, was arrested, in Prince George's County, on suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol. On each occasion, he was issued citations for multiple traffic offenses, with the lead offense, in each instance, being driving while under the influence of alcohol.[1]

         On March 8, 2016, Fielding was charged by criminal information, in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, in two separate cases, Numbers CT16-0295X and CT16-0294X, corresponding to the offenses allegedly committed in August and November 2015, respectively. Each information charged a violation of Transportation Article ("TR"), § 21-902(a)(1)[2] (driving while under the influence of alcohol), as well as other violations of the Transportation Article of the Code.[3] Later the same day, [4] the State filed notices of intent to seek enhanced penalties, under Maryland Rule 4-245(b), [5] in both cases for driving while under the influence of alcohol, because Fielding, the State alleged, previously had been convicted of multiple violations of that same statutory provision.[6]

         Although, generally, the District Court of Maryland, not a circuit court, has "exclusive original jurisdiction in a criminal case in which a person at least 16 years old . . . is charged with violation of the vehicle laws," Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJ"), § 4-301(a), [7] the State, in filing the informations in the circuit court, relied upon an exception to that exclusivity, under CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i), which provides, as relevant here, that "the jurisdiction of the District Court is concurrent with that of the circuit court in a criminal case . . . [i]n which the penalty may be confinement for 3 years or more or a fine of $2, 500 or more[.]"[8] Whereas a charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol, standing alone, carries a maximum penalty of "a fine of not more than $1, 000, or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both," that same charge, if alleged against a person who has previously committed three or more such offenses, potentially carries a maximum penalty of "a fine of not more than $3, 000, or imprisonment for not more than 3 years, or both." TR § 27-101(k)(1)(i), (iii).[9] It is undisputed that the State's notices of intent to seek enhanced penalties, through which it attempted to invoke CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i), provided the sole jurisdictional basis for filing charges in the circuit court rather than in the District Court.[10]

         Fielding moved to dismiss, alleging that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the charges because the State's subsequent filing of a notice of intent to seek enhanced penalties did not and could not divest the District Court of its exclusive original jurisdiction in these cases, as mandated by CJ § 4-301(a). After that motion was denied, Fielding noted an interlocutory appeal. In an unreported opinion, we dismissed that appeal (along with several others raising the same issue), because, we held, no statutory provision permitted the appeal, nor was it allowed under the collateral order doctrine. Fielding v. State, No. 876, Sept. Term, 2016 (filed May 31, 2017).

         Following remand, Fielding entered a conditional guilty plea, pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-242(d), [11] to two counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol. In return, the State entered nolle prosequi to all the remaining counts in both charging documents and agreed that the sentences on both counts would be two years' imprisonment, all suspended, followed by three years' supervised probation, to run concurrently with each other and with the sentence that had been imposed, two weeks previously, in yet another alcohol-related traffic case, in Charles County, in Case Number 08-K-15-001070, which is not the subject of this appeal.[12] Fielding thereafter noted the instant appeal, raising, once again, the claim that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the charges.

         DISCUSSION

         Standard of Review

         The only issue before us is whether the circuit court correctly interpreted the jurisdictional statutes, which is a question of law that we review without deference. Harrison-Solomon v. State, 442 Md. 254, 265 (2015). When interpreting a statute, our goal is to "discern[] the intention of the Legislature when it drafted and enacted it." Harris v. State, 331 Md. 137, 145 (1993) (citation omitted). The first step in achieving that goal is to examine the text of the statute; if that text is "unambiguous and clearly consistent with the statute's apparent purpose, our inquiry as to legislative intent ends ordinarily and we apply the statute as written, without resort to other rules of construction." Harrison-Solomon, 442 Md. at 265 (quoting Lockshin v. Semsker, 412 Md. 257, 275 (2010)) (footnote omitted). If, however, the statutory text is ambiguous, we ordinarily must consult additional sources of legislative intent, such as "the relevant statute's legislative history, the context of the statute within the broader legislative scheme, and the relative rationality of competing constructions." Id. at 265-66 (citing Witte v. Azarian, 369 Md. 518, 525-26 (2002)).

         Analysis

         "It is fundamental that a court is without power to render a verdict or impose a sentence under a charging document which does not charge an offense within its jurisdiction prescribed by common law or by statute." Williams v. State, 302 Md. 787, 791 (1985) (citations omitted). Under such circumstances, "the court lacks fundamental subject matter jurisdiction to render a judgment of conviction, i.e., it is powerless in such circumstances to inquire into the facts, to apply the law, and to declare the punishment for an offense." Id. at 792 (citations omitted). "[A]ny action taken by a court while it lacks 'fundamental jurisdiction' is a nullity, for to act without such jurisdiction is not to act at all." Pulley v. State, 287 Md. 406, 416 (1980).

         Section 4-301(a) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article provides that the District Court has exclusive original jurisdiction "in a criminal case in which a person at least 16 years old . . . is charged with violation of the vehicle laws," and subsection (b)(1) of that same statute further provides that the District Court has exclusive original jurisdiction "in a criminal case in which a person at least 18 years old . . . is charged with . . . [c]ommission of a common-law or statutory misdemeanor regardless of the amount of money or value of the property involved[.]" A violation of TR § 21-902(a) is both a violation of the vehicle laws and a statutory misdemeanor, TR § 27-101(a), and therefore, the District Court would have had exclusive original jurisdiction in these cases, unless an exception applies.

         The relevant exception to that exclusivity is found in CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i), which provides that "the jurisdiction of the District Court is concurrent with that of the circuit court in a criminal case . . . [i]n which the penalty may be confinement for 3 years or more or a fine of $2, 500 or more[.]" Whether that exception applies in the instant case is dispositive of this appeal.

         In answering that question, we are led, in turn, to the closely related question of which penalty provision, TR § 27-101(k)(1)(i) or (k)(1)(iii), applies, and under precisely what circumstances. The former states that, for a first violation of TR § 21-902(a), the penalty "shall be . . . a fine of not more than $1, 000, or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both," whereas the latter states that, for a third or subsequent violation, the penalty "shall be . . . a fine of not more than $3, 000, or imprisonment for not more than 3 years, or both."

         In essence, the State's contention that the circuit court possessed subject-matter jurisdiction over these two cases rests upon two theoretical bases: either Fielding's status as a previous offender meant that, when the charges were filed in the circuit court, he was included, without more, within the class of defendants subject to a penalty of (at least) "confinement for 3 years or more or a fine of $2, 500 or more," CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i), or the subsequent filing of a notice to seek enhanced penalties thereafter brought him within that class and, concomitantly, vested jurisdiction in the circuit court at that time. Neither of these theories of jurisdiction in the circuit court withstands scrutiny.

         When the traffic citations were filed in the District Court in these cases, jurisdiction attached, at that time, in the District Court. See Md. Rule 4-201(b)(3) (providing that, in the District Court, "an offense may be tried . . . on a citation in the case of a petty offense or when authorized by statute."); TR § 26-101(a)(1) (authorizing a police officer to charge a person by citation with a violation of the Maryland Vehicle Law). At the time that charges subsequently were filed in the circuit court, Fielding was not yet subject to "a fine of not more than $3, 000, or imprisonment for not more than 3 years, or both," TR § 27-101(k)(1)(iii), and therefore, did not, at that time, meet the threshold for concurrent jurisdiction in the circuit court, "confinement for 3 years or more or a fine of $2, 500 or more." CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i). Therefore, the filing of the criminal informations could not have divested the District Court of its jurisdiction.[13] To understand why, we digress and explain Maryland law governing the imposition of enhanced penalties, for repeat offenders, that are permitted but not mandatory, because the enhanced penalty statute at issue in this case, TR § 27-101(k)(1)(iii), is of that type.[14]

         To render an accused eligible for sentencing under such an enhanced penalty statute, the State must comply with Maryland Rule 4-245(b), which provides:

(b) Required Notice of Additional Penalties. When the law permits but does not mandate additional penalties because of a specified previous conviction, the court shall not sentence the defendant as a subsequent offender unless the State's Attorney serves notice of the alleged prior conviction on the defendant or counsel before the acceptance of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or at least 15 days before trial in circuit court or five days before trial in District Court, whichever is earlier.

         If an enhanced penalty statute is of the "permissive-but-not-mandatory" type, then, unless and until the State complies with Rule 4-245(b), a "court shall not sentence" a defendant as a subsequent offender. In other words, until the State complies with Rule 4-245(b), a defendant is ineligible to receive such an enhanced sentence. Carter v. State, 319 Md. 618 (1990), illustrates this proposition.

         In Carter, the defendant had been convicted, in the District Court, of driving while under the influence of alcohol[15] and was sentenced to sixty days' confinement. Id. at 619-20. He thereafter noted an appeal to the Circuit Court for Frederick County. Id. at 620. "Three months later, the State served notice for the first time that it would seek enhanced punishment under" Rule 4-245(b). Id. "A trial de novo was conducted before a jury on the charge of driving under the influence," Carter was found guilty, and he "was sentenced as a subsequent offender to one year in prison." Id. The Court of Appeals granted his ensuing petition for writ of certiorari, in which he raised the question of whether "a District Court sentence for driving [while] under the influence of alcohol may be increased in the circuit court under the enhanced punishment statute when the subsequent offender notice is filed after the District Court trial but before the de novo appeal to the circuit court." Id. at 619.

         The Court of Appeals vacated the enhanced sentence and remanded for resentencing. Id. at 623. It held that, "[b]ecause the State did not file its notice of enhanced punishment by the earlier of the applicable deadlines specified in the rule, the circuit court was prohibited from sentencing [Carter] as a subsequent offender." Id.

         Based upon Carter, we conclude that the State's compliance with Rule 4-245(b) is a condition precedent to a defendant's eligibility for an enhanced sentence under that section of the rule, so that the State's argument that Fielding's status as a repeat offender, subject to an enhanced sentence, permitted the State to file charges in the circuit court, is without merit. Because, as the State concedes, the notices of intent to seek enhanced penalties in the instant case were not filed until after the criminal informations were filed in the circuit court, then it must be true that when those informations were filed, Fielding was not yet eligible for an enhanced penalty, under TR § 27-101(k)(1)(iii).[16] It follows that, when the informations were filed, neither case satisfied the threshold for concurrent jurisdiction in the circuit court, "confinement for 3 years or more or a fine of $2, 500 or more," CJ § 4-302(d)(1)(i), and therefore, under CJ § 4-301(a) and (b)(1), jurisdiction remained, at that time, in the District Court. Consequently, because the criminal informations were filed in a court that lacked jurisdiction, that court's actions, in docketing those filings, had no legal effect, because, as the Court of Appeals has explained, "any action taken by a court while it lacks 'fundamental jurisdiction' is a nullity, for to act without such jurisdiction is not to act at all." Pulley, supra, 287 Md. at 416. Accord State v. Garner, 90 Md.App. 392 (1992) (holding that, following the defendant's demand for jury trial, which divested the District Court of jurisdiction over all his traffic offenses, his payment of a traffic fine[17] to the District Court was of no legal effect); Powers v. State, 70 Md.App. 44 (1987) (holding that, following the State's filing of charges in the circuit court, which divested the District Court of jurisdiction over all the defendant's vehicular offenses (including those that otherwise would have been within the sole jurisdiction of the District Court), his payment of a traffic fine[18] to the District Court was of no legal effect).

         Moreover, the State's filing of the notices of intent to seek enhanced penalties did not and could not have divested the District Court of jurisdiction over the charges in these cases. Those triggering events, which divest the District Court of original jurisdiction in criminal cases, are expressly delineated by statute:

(e)(1) The District Court is deprived of jurisdiction if a defendant is entitled to and demands a jury trial at any time prior to trial in the District Court.
(2)(i) Except as provided in subparagraph (ii) of this paragraph, unless the penalty for the offense with which the defendant is charged permits imprisonment for a period in excess of 90 days, a defendant is ...

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