THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ROCKINGHAM COUNTY Thomas J. Wilson, IV,
WILLIAM C. MIMS, JUSTICE
appeal, we consider whether the imposition of a sentence
below the statutory minimum renders the judgment void ab
initio or merely voidable.
BACKGROUND AND MATERIAL PROCEEDINGS BELOW
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.
years later, Watson filed a motion to vacate three of the
four sentences imposed upon him as void ab initio. He noted
that the statute imposed a mandatory minimum term of five
years' imprisonment for any second or subsequent offense.
Consequently, he asserted, three of his three-year sentences
are void ab initio for being shorter than the
statutorily-prescribed five-year minimum.
Commonwealth moved to dismiss Watson's motion, arguing
among other things that under Smith v. Commonwealth,
195 Va. 297, 300 (1953) and Royster v. Smith, 195
Va. 228, 234 (1953), sentences below the statutory minimum
are not void ab initio but only voidable. Consequently, it
asserted that pursuant to Rule 1:1 Watson's sentences had
become final years before he filed his motion to vacate.
Watson responded that under Rawls v. Commonwealth,
278 Va. 213 (2009), any sentence imposed outside a
statutorily-prescribed range is void ab initio. The circuit
court issued a letter opinion in which it agreed with Watson,
relying on Rawls and Grafmuller v.
Commonwealth, 290 Va. 525 (2015). It thereafter entered
an order granting Watson's motion to vacate his sentences
and reopening the relevant criminal cases for further
awarded the Commonwealth this appeal.
review lower courts' interpretations of our precedents de
novo. Hicks v. Mellis, 275 Va. 213, 218 (2008).
Commonwealth asserts that the circuit court erred by ruling
that Watson's sentences are void ab initio and therefore
could be vacated upon his motion a decade later. Rule 1:1
limits the circuit court's jurisdiction to 21 days after
entry of judgment. Although Rule 1:1 applies only to voidable
judgments, not to void ones, the Commonwealth argues that
this Court held in both Smith, 195 Va. at 300, and
Royster, 195 Va. at 234, that a sentence below the
statutory minimum is only voidable, and the circuit court
mistakenly ruled that those holdings had been overruled. The
Commonwealth argues that in Rawls this Court was
limited by the assignments of error, which presented the
question only of whether a sentence above the
statutory maximum was void ab initio. The
Commonwealth contends that the language in Rawls
suggesting that any sentence outside the statutory range,
rather than only the excessive, over-the-range sentence at
issue in that case, was dictum.
responds that in Rawls, the Court expressly stated
that it was adopting a new rule, precisely for the purpose of
Today we adopt the following rule that is designed to ensure
that all criminal defendants whose punishments have been
fixed in violation of the statutorily prescribed ranges are
treated uniformly without speculation. We hold that a
sentence imposed in violation of a prescribed statutory range
of punishment is void ab initio because the character of the
judgment was not such as the [c]ourt had the power to render.
278 Va. at 221 (italics and internal quotation marks
omitted). He argues that Smith and Royster
cannot survive that holding, so they were implicitly
overruled. He contends that the Rawls language was
not dictum because the Court unequivocally stated that it was
creating a new rule that all extra-range ...