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Commonwealth v. Watson

Supreme Court of Virginia

May 30, 2019

COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA
v.
AUDREL JACK WATSON, JR.

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

          OPINION

          WILLIAM C. MIMS, JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we consider whether the imposition of a sentence below the statutory minimum renders the judgment void ab initio or merely voidable.

         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 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.

         The 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 proceedings.

         We awarded the Commonwealth this appeal.

         II. ANALYSIS

         We review lower courts' interpretations of our precedents de novo. Hicks v. Mellis, 275 Va. 213, 218 (2008).

         The 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.

         Watson responds that in Rawls, the Court expressly stated that it was adopting a new rule, precisely for the purpose of creating uniformity:

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 ...


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