Summary dismissal of petition was proper where appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to argue improper sentencing factors
The appellant in People v. Todd, 2019 IL App (3d) 170153 appealed the trial court’s order summarily dismissing his pro se post-conviction petition on the grounds that the court erred because the petition presented an arguable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Appellate Court of Illinois Third District affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court of Whiteside County.
Todd entered an open plea to one count of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, which was accepted by the court. Prior to sentencing, the State produced a pre-sentence investigation report (PSI) which stated that Todd had five prior felony convictions. Id. at ¶ 3-4. As a result, at sentencing, the court found, in aggravation, that Todd had a significant history of criminal activity and a prison sentence was necessary to “deter others from committing the same crime.” Id. at ¶ 5. The court further noted the large amount of the controlled substance included in the sale and referred to it as “more than just a casual deal,” prior to sentencing defendant to 25 years’ imprisonment.
On direct appeal, appellant’s counsel unsuccessfully raised claims of ineffective assistance of counsel related assertions made by trial counsel that Todd’s plea deal include a 10-year sentencing cap; that Todd’s plea was not knowingly or voluntarily entered; that he was denied the benefit of the bargain made with the State; and that the court violated his due process rights when it denied his motion to vacate a directed finding. The court affirmed the conviction and sentence. Id. at ¶ 6.
Todd then filed a pro se post-conviction petition which alleged four claims: (1) post-trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, (2) appellate counsel was ineffective, (3) the court had violated appellant’s due process rights, and (4) the court deprived appellant of his due process rights when it considered the amount of the controlled substance as an aggravating factor at sentencing. Id. at ¶ 7. The court found the claims in the petition to be frivolous and patently without merit and summarily dismissed it. This appeal followed.
Todd argued on appeal that the trial court erroneously dismissed his pro se post-conviction petition because it presented an arguable claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, who failed to argue on direct appeal that the court relied on an improper factor at sentencing. The aforementioned factor was the amount of the controlled substance sold, as noted in the pro se petition. Id. at ¶ 9.
The appellate court found that the circuit court properly dismissed the previously raised claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and due process violations, as the claims were barred by res judicata and waiver. Id. at ¶ 11.
As to the remaining claim, in order to proceed past the first stage of post-conviction proceedings, the court held that the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim must make an arguable assertion that (1) counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) appellant was prejudiced as a result. Id. at ¶ 12. Moreover, the court held that appellant counsel, in general, is not required to brief every conceivable issue and is not incompetent for refraining from raising an issue without merit, unless their evaluation of the merits of a claim is patently wrong. Id. at ¶ 12. The court further acknowledged that while “a factor implicit in the offense for which a defendant has been convicted cannot be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing,” legislative intent may allow such use of the factor. Id. at ¶ 13. The court looked to the plain language of the statute to determine whether use of the factor in appellant’s instance was justified.
Subsection 401(a)(2)(A) of Section 401 of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act criminalizes the offense of possessing with an intent to deliver a substance containing cocaine and provides a sentence of “not less than 6 years and not more than 30 years with respect to 15 grams or more but less than 100 grams of a substance containing cocaine, or an analog thereof.” Id. at ¶ 14. The statute’s sentencing guidelines provide “wide latitude in sentencing discretion” and explicitly allow for the consideration of the amount of the substance as an aggravating factor at sentencing.
That, taken with the additional aggravating factors in the PSI, led the appellate court to conclude that the circuit court properly considered the amount of cocaine during sentencing, and appellate counsel did not have a duty to raise the meritless sentencing issue. Id at ¶ 15.
As such, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District ruled the circuit court did not err when it summarily dismissed appellant’s pro se post-conviction petition and affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Whiteside County.