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Nichols v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

November 7, 2018

DARRYL NICHOLS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND Crime: Original Sentence: Status After Resentencing Proceeding: Crime: Maximum Sentence:

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case Nos. 112333013, 112333014, 112333015

          Barbera, C.J., Greene [*] Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          Watts, J.

         Under the law of the case doctrine, "a decision [that is] rendered in a [prior] appeal . . . is binding in a later appeal." Law of the Case, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). In other words, once an appellate court

has ruled upon a question [that is] properly presented [in] an appeal[-]or, if the ruling [is] contrary to a question that could have been raised and argued in that appeal on the then[-existing] state of the record[-]such a ruling becomes the law of the case[, ] and is binding on the [parties, the appellate court, ] and [lower] courts alike, unless changed . . ., and neither the questions [that were] decided[, ] nor the ones that could have been raised and decided[, ] are available to be raised in a subsequent appeal.

Dep't of Pub. Safety & Corr. Servs. v. Doe, 439 Md. 201, 216-17, 94 A.3d 791, 800 (2014) (cleaned up). The law of the case doctrine's "purpose is to prevent piecemeal litigation[;] without it[, ] any party . . . could institute as many successive appeals as . . . his [or her] imagination could produce new reasons to assign as to why his [or her] side . . . should prevail, and the litigation would never terminate." Dabbs v. Anne Arundel Cty., 458 Md. 331, 345 n.15, 182 A.3d 798, 806 n.15 (2018) (cleaned up).

         In this case, a defendant unsuccessfully challenged a sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment in an appeal, then challenged the sentence and sought resentencing on the count on a different ground at a resentencing proceeding. We must determine, among other issues, whether the law of the case doctrine barred the trial court from considering the defendant's new challenge to the sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.

         In the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the State, Respondent/Cross-Petitioner, charged Darryl Nichols, Petitioner/Cross-Respondent, with multiple crimes. After Nichols was convicted, the circuit court sentenced him to: life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, for first-degree felony murder; life imprisonment, with all but fifty concurrent years suspended, for false imprisonment; fifty concurrent years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment; five concurrent years of imprisonment for extortion; five concurrent years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit extortion; followed by five years of supervised probation. Thus, Nichols's original aggregate sentence was life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, followed by five years of supervised probation.

         Nichols appealed. The Court of Special Appeals vacated Nichols's life sentence, with all but fifty years suspended, for false imprisonment, holding that, under this case's circumstances, the maximum sentence for false imprisonment was thirty years of imprisonment. See Darryl Nichols v. State, No. 169, Sept. Term, 2014, 2016 WL 1622079, at *5 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Feb. 4, 2016).[1] The Court of Special Appeals also vacated Nichols's convictions for first-degree felony murder and conspiracy to commit extortion, affirmed the rest of his convictions and sentences, and remanded for resentencing as to false imprisonment. See Nichols, 2016 WL 1622079, at *6. The Court of Special Appeals rejected Nichols's contention that his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment must be vacated because conspiracy to commit false imprisonment is a lesser-included offense of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. See id. at *5 n.5.

         At a resentencing proceeding, Nichols's counsel challenged his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment on a different ground-namely, that his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment violated Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol.) ("CR") § 1-202, which states: "The punishment of a person who is convicted of conspiracy may not exceed the maximum punishment for the crime that the person conspired to commit." Nichols's counsel contended that, under CR § 1-202, given that Nichols's sentence for false imprisonment could not exceed thirty years, neither could his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.

         The circuit court reasoned, however, that it lacked the authority to resentence Nichols for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, as the Court of Special Appeals had remanded for resentencing only as to false imprisonment. The circuit court resentenced Nichols to thirty years of imprisonment for false imprisonment, consecutive to the existing fifty-year sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. Nichols's new aggregate sentence was eighty years of imprisonment. Nichols's counsel argued that, by making Nichols's new sentence for false imprisonment consecutive to the existing sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, the circuit court had impermissibly increased his aggregate sentence above the original aggregate sentence of life imprisonment with all but fifty years suspended. The circuit court was unpersuaded.

         For comparison of Nichols's original sentences to the status of his sentences after the resentencing proceeding, we set forth the following table:

Crime:
Original Sentence:
Status After Resentencing Proceeding:

First-degree felony murder

Life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended

N/A (conviction vacated)

False imprisonment

Life imprisonment, with all but fifty concurrent years suspended

Thirty consecutive years of imprisonment

Conspiracy to commit false imprisonment

Fifty concurrent years of imprisonment

Fifty years of imprisonment

Extortion

Five concurrent years of imprisonment

Remained the same

Conspiracy to commit extortion

Five concurrent years of imprisonment

N/A (conviction vacated)

Aggregate sentence:

Life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, followed by five years of supervised probation

Eighty years of imprisonment

         Nichols appealed again. The Court of Special Appeals determined that the law of the case doctrine barred the circuit court from considering Nichols's second challenge to his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. See Darryl Nichols v. State, No. 1277, Sept. Term, 2016, 2017 WL 6492681, at *3 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Dec. 19, 2017). But, the Court of Special Appeals agreed with Nichols that, under Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.) ("CJ") § 12-702(b)-which states that, generally, on remand, a trial court "may not impose a sentence more severe than the sentence previously imposed for the offense"-the circuit court had impermissibly increased his aggregate sentence by making his new sentence for false imprisonment consecutive to his existing sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment for a total of eighty years of active incarceration. See Nichols, 2017 WL 6492681, at *6. The Court of Special Appeals vacated Nichols's sentence for false imprisonment, affirmed in all other respects, and remanded with instructions to impose a new sentence for false imprisonment that would not result in a new aggregate sentence of more than fifty years of active incarceration. See id.

         Before us, Nichols contends that the Court of Special Appeals erred in concluding that the law of the case doctrine barred the circuit court from considering at the resentencing proceeding his second challenge to his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. Nichols argues that his fifty-year sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment violates CR § 1-202 because it exceeds the thirty-year maximum sentence that he received for false imprisonment. The State disagrees with Nichols, and asserts that the Court of Special Appeals erred in determining that the circuit court had impermissibly increased Nichols's sentence by imposing a new aggregate sentence of eighty years of imprisonment where Nichols had been originally sentenced to life imprisonment with all but fifty years suspended.

         Below, in Part I, consistent with existing case law, we hold that the law of the case doctrine does not bar a trial court from considering under Maryland Rule 4-345(a) an issue as to a sentence's legality that an appellate court has not resolved. Here, the Court of Special Appeals erred in concluding that the law of the case doctrine barred the circuit court from considering Nichols's second challenge to his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, as the Court of Special Appeals did not resolve that challenge in the first appeal.

         In Part II, addressing the merits of that challenge, we hold that, under CR § 1-202, where a defendant is convicted of both a crime and conspiracy to commit that crime, a trial court cannot impose for the conspiracy a sentence that exceeds the maximum sentence that the trial court imposed for the crime that the person conspired to commit. The plain language of CR § 1-202 requires this result. And, although there is no ambiguity as to CR § 1-202's language, its legislative history confirms the General Assembly's intent that a defendant's punishment for conspiracy to commit a crime not exceed the punishment that the defendant received for the crime that the defendant conspired to commit. Here, given that the circuit court sentenced Nichols to thirty years of imprisonment for false imprisonment, the circuit court could not impose a sentence of more than thirty years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment.

         In Part III, we hold that, under CJ § 12-702(b), an aggregate sentence of a certain number of years of imprisonment is more severe than a sentence of life imprisonment, with all but a lower number of years suspended. Here, given that Nichols's original aggregate sentence was life imprisonment with all but fifty years suspended, followed by five years of supervised probation, the circuit court impermissibly increased his aggregate sentence at the resentencing proceeding by imposing a thirty-year sentence for false imprisonment consecutive to the fifty-year sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, for a new aggregate sentence of eighty years of imprisonment.

         In Part IV, we grant the State's request to vacate all of Nichols's sentences, and to remand for resentencing as to the remaining convictions.

         BACKGROUND

         Charges and Underlying Events

         In the circuit court, the State charged Nichols with first-degree murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment, extortion, and conspiracy to commit each of these crimes. The indictments identified Nichols's co-conspirators as Donta Vaughn and Sherelle Ferguson, and identified the victim as Eric Pendergrass.

         At trial, as a witness for the State, Wayne Price testified that, in late January 2009, he, Vaughn, Ferguson, and a friend whom he knew as "Ty," met and discussed ways to try to make $50, 000. Subsequently, Price, Ty, Vaughn, Ferguson, and Nichols met. At that meeting, Vaughn proposed a plan "to grab" an acquaintance of his, obtain money from the acquaintance's "girl[, ]" and then kill the acquaintance. Price said that he wanted no part of the plan and left.

         As a witness for the State, Tiara Felder testified that Pendergrass had been her boyfriend and roommate. On February 1, 2009, between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m., Pendergrass telephoned Felder and told her to go to a closet, get a bag, and take it to his mother's house. Felder got the bag, looked inside, and saw cash, which she estimated to be $15, 000. After Felder arrived at Pendergrass's mother's house, someone knocked on the door. Pendergrass's cousin answered the door, and Felder saw a woman outside. The woman said that she was there for Pendergrass. Felder gave the bag of cash to the woman. On February 1 or 2, 2009, Felder received a text message from a phone number that she did not recognize. For approximately two or three days, Felder exchanged text messages with the unknown number. As a result of the text messages, Felder took another bag, containing between $25, 000 and $30, 000 in cash, to a certain location. Afterward, Felder learned that Pendergrass had been killed.

         Verdicts, Original Sentences, and First Appeal

         A jury found Nichols guilty of first-degree felony murder, false imprisonment, conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, extortion, and conspiracy to commit extortion.[2]The circuit court sentenced Nichols to: life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, for first-degree felony murder; life imprisonment, with all but fifty concurrent years suspended, for false imprisonment; fifty concurrent years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment; five concurrent years of imprisonment for extortion; five concurrent years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit extortion; followed by five years of supervised probation. Nichols's original aggregate sentence was life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, followed by five years of supervised probation.

         Nichols appealed. On October 13, 2015, the Court of Special Appeals: vacated Nichols's conviction for first-degree felony murder, his sentence for conspiracy to commit extortion, [3] and his sentence for false imprisonment; affirmed the balance of Nichols's convictions and sentences; and remanded for resentencing as to false imprisonment with instructions not to impose a sentence that exceeded thirty years of imprisonment. See Darryl Nichols v. State, No. 0169, Sept. Term, 2014, 2015 WL 5944381, at *6 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Oct. 13, 2015). The Court of Special Appeals held that the circuit court erred in sentencing Nichols to life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, for false imprisonment, as, under this case's circumstances, the maximum sentence for false imprisonment was thirty years of imprisonment. See id. at *5-6. Before the Court of Special Appeals, Nichols contended that conspiracy to commit false imprisonment is a lesser-included offense of kidnapping. See id. at *5. The Court of Special Appeals rejected this contention, as each crime includes an element that the other does not. See id. Specifically, one element of kidnapping is that the defendant transports the victim to another place, while conspiracy to commit false imprisonment does not include this element. See id. One element of conspiracy to commit false imprisonment is that the defendant agreed with at least one other person to commit the crime of false imprisonment, while kidnapping lacks this element. See id.

         Nichols moved for reconsideration. On February 4, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals issued a superseding opinion that was identical to the original one, except that, in the new opinion: two footnotes were added to address the motion for reconsideration; typographical errors were fixed; and the Court vacated not only Nichols's sentence, but also his conviction, for conspiracy to commit extortion. Compare Nichols, 2015 WL 5944381, with Nichols, 2016 WL 1622079, at *4 n.4, *5 n.5, *6.

         Resentencing Proceeding

         On August 18, 2016, the circuit court conducted a resentencing proceeding. At the proceeding, Nichols's counsel asked the circuit court "to consider [an issue] that the Court of Special Appeals [had] not consider[ed.]" Nichols's counsel advised that CR § 1-202 states: "The punishment of a person who is convicted of conspiracy may not exceed the maximum punishment for the crime that the person conspired to commit." Nichols's counsel pointed out that the Court of Special Appeals had held that, under this case's circumstances, the maximum sentence for false imprisonment was thirty years of imprisonment. See Nichols, 2016 WL 1622079, at *4-5. Nichols's counsel contended that, accordingly, the sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment could not exceed thirty years of imprisonment. Nichols's counsel acknowledged that Nichols had not raised, and the Court of Special Appeals had not addressed, the issue of whether his sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment could exceed the maximum sentence for false imprisonment.

         The prosecutor responded that the Court of Special Appeals had affirmed Nichols's conviction and sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. The prosecutor contended that, if the Court of Special Appeals had intended for Nichols's sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment to be capped at thirty years of imprisonment, it would have stated as much.

         The circuit court concluded that it lacked the authority to resentence Nichols for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. The circuit court observed that the Court of Special Appeals had remanded only for resentencing as to certain of Nichols's convictions, which did not include his conviction for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. The circuit court stated that the only issues that were before it were the ones that the Court of Special Appeals had addressed. The circuit court observed that it was conducting a resentencing proceeding, not a hearing on a motion to modify a sentence.

         The circuit court resentenced Nichols to thirty years of imprisonment for false imprisonment. The circuit court made Nichols's new thirty-year sentence for false imprisonment consecutive to his existing fifty-year sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, making his new aggregate sentence eighty years of imprisonment. Nichols's counsel noted that his original sentence for false imprisonment had been concurrent to his sentence of life imprisonment, with all but fifty years suspended, for first-degree felony murder, and contended that the circuit court had impermissibly increased his aggregate sentence by imposing an aggregate sentence of eighty years of imprisonment- i.e., by making his new sentence for false imprisonment consecutive to his existing sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment. The circuit court did not agree.

         Opinion of the Court of Special Appeals in This Appeal

         Nichols appealed again. On December 19, 2017, the Court of Special Appeals vacated Nichols's sentence for false imprisonment, affirmed in all other respects, and remanded for resentencing as to false imprisonment. See Nichols, 2017 WL 6492681, at *6. The Court of Special Appeals held that the law of the case doctrine prevented Nichols from challenging the sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment on the ground that his sentence exceeded the maximum sentence for false imprisonment. See id. at *4.

         The Court explained that the law of the case doctrine applied because the issue as to Nichols's sentence for conspiracy to commit false imprisonment could have been raised or decided in the first appeal. See id. at *3.

         The Court of Special Appeals concluded that, under CJ § 12-702(b), the circuit court had impermissibly increased Nichols's aggregate sentence by imposing an active eighty-year sentence of incarceration. See id. at *6. The Court of Special Appeals remanded for resentencing with instructions not to impose a new sentence for false imprisonment that would result in an aggregate sentence of more than fifty active years of imprisonment. See id.

         Petition for a Writ of Certiorari and Conditional Cross-Petition

         On February 7, 2018, Nichols petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising the following issue: "Whether, despite Maryland Rule 4-345[(a)]'s provision that a court may correct an illegal sentence at any time, the law of the case doctrine may bar a claim of an illegal sentence for failure to properly raise the issue on appeal?" On February 21, 2018, the State conditionally cross-petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising the following issue: "Is Nichols's total sentence of 80 years of imprisonment, which was imposed at resentencing, not an illegal increase from his previous total sentence of life with all but 50 years ...


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