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Watson v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

May 30, 2019

AUDREL JACK WATSON, JR.
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ROCKINGHAM COUNTY Thomas J. Wilson, IV, Judge

          OPINION

          WILLIAM C. MIMS, JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we consider whether a felon has standing to move to vacate the sentences of other felons as void ab initio.

         I. BACKGROUND AND MATERIAL PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         In 2007, Audrel Jack Watson, Jr. was convicted on Alford pleas to several offenses, including four counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony, in violation of Code § 18.2-53.1. The circuit court sentenced him to a term of three years' imprisonment for each count, to be served consecutively.

         Ten years later, Watson filed a motion to vacate as void 30 sentences imposed by the court upon 12 felons for violations of Code § 18.2-53.1, including three of the four sentences imposed upon him.[*] Twenty-eight of the challenged sentences were for terms of three years' imprisonment, one was for two years' imprisonment, and one was for five years' imprisonment with four years suspended. He asserted that all of the defendants had, like him, been convicted of multiple violations of the statute. He also noted that the statute imposed a mandatory minimum term of five years' imprisonment for any second or subsequent offense. Consequently, he argued, each of the challenged sentences is void ab initio for being shorter than the statutorily-prescribed five-year minimum.

          The Commonwealth moved to dismiss Watson's motion, arguing among other things that he lacked standing to challenge the other felons' sentences. Watson responded that, under our precedents, a judgment that is void ab initio may be challenged "by all persons, anywhere, at any time, or in any manner." Singh v. Mooney, 261 Va. 48, 52 (2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court issued a letter opinion in which it ruled that a person must establish standing even when challenging a judgment as void ab initio.

         Watson filed motions to reconsider arguing that under our decision in Virginian-Pilot Media Cos., LLC v. Dow Jones & Co., Inc., 280 Va. 464, 470 (2010) (plurality opinion), the doctrine of standing is "not relevant to the inquiry whether an order was entered by a court that lacked jurisdiction of the order's subject matter." The Commonwealth responded by arguing among other things that Virginian-Pilot Media was distinguishable because circuit courts have subject-matter jurisdiction under Code § 17.1-513 to try felonies and to impose sentence upon conviction. The court issued a second letter opinion adopting the Commonwealth's argument. It thereafter entered an order denying Watson's motion to vacate the 11 other felons' sentences.

         We awarded Watson this appeal.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Questions of standing are questions of law that we review de novo. Kelley v. Stamos, 285 Va. 68, 73 (2013).

         Watson asserts that the circuit court erred by ruling that he lacked standing to move to vacate the 11 other felons' sentences. He argues that after this Court's decision in Virginian-Pilot Media, standing is not relevant in an attack upon a void judgment. This Court has repeatedly said that a judgment may be challenged collaterally by any one, in any place, at any time, and even by a court sua sponte. E.g., Singh, 261 Va. at 52.

          The Commonwealth argues that the circuit court correctly ruled that Watson lacks standing to challenge the other felons' sentences. Under Evans v. Smyth-Wythe Airport Comm'n, 255 Va. 69, 73 (1998), a judgment may be void ab initio if (1) it was procured by fraud, (2) the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, (3) the court lacked jurisdiction over the parties, (4) the judgment is of a character that the court lacked power to render, or (5) the court adopted an unlawful procedure. It contends that the ruling in Virginian-Pilot Media that standing was irrelevant was limited only to judgments void ab initio for the second Evans reason-i.e., because the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. Here, circuit courts do have subject-matter jurisdiction to render judgments imposing sentences upon felony convictions.

         Watson replies that a void judgment is void regardless of which of the five Evans reasons makes it void, and that Virginian-Pilot Media applies to them all. He argues that the reason for the ruling in Virginian-Pilot Media that standing is irrelevant in a challenge to a void judgment is that such a judgment is a nullity. Further, even if we determine that he ...


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