Brianna Marie Peterson was involved in a traffic accident that severely injured another driver. The Municipality of Anchorage charged her with one count of driving with a revoked license, but did not bring any charges directly related to the accident.
Peterson pleaded guilty to the single count of driving with a revoked license. At the sentencing hearing, the Municipality did not present any formal evidence or sworn testimony about the accident or the reasons for Peterson's revoked license. Nonetheless, the traffic accident figured prominently in the district court's decision to impose a term of imprisonment and to order restitution.
On appeal, Peterson challenges her sentence and the restitution order, contesting
We therefore reverse the restitution judgment, but otherwise affirm Peterson's sentence.
According to the Municipality's charging document, in June 2016, Peterson was driving in the middle lane of the road when she allegedly turned in front of a bus that was being driven in the left lane. The driver of the bus swerved to avoid hitting Peterson's car, causing the bus to collide with a light pole. The bus driver was badly injured and hospitalized. When the police checked the status of Peterson's Washington driver's license, they discovered that it was revoked.
Although the Municipality charged Peterson with driving with a revoked license, Peterson was not charged with any additional criminal offenses arising out of the accident. Peterson ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of driving with a revoked license, with sentencing open to the district court.
At sentencing, the court found an aggravating factor — that Peterson had prior criminal convictions similar in nature to the current offense.
The prosecutor argued that Peterson should be considered a worst offender and subjected to the maximum penalty, given her history of driving-related convictions and the severity of the accident. (Peterson had several prior driving-related convictions from Washington state: two prior convictions for driving while license suspended, one conviction for reckless driving, and one conviction for driving without a valid operating license.) The prosecutor also argued that the court should impose restitution for the accident.
Neither party presented any sworn testimony or formal evidence regarding the accident. (The prosecutor apparently submitted photographs of the scene to the court, but these photographs are not part of the appellate record.) The bus driver provided a statement in which he recounted the accident from his perspective: he saw the front tire of Peterson's van turn toward him, he "yanked" his steering wheel to try to avoid hitting her, and he then clipped Peterson's van and ran into the light pole. In her allocution, Peterson apologized for what happened. She said that she had consulted her GPS before pulling her car out and "was certain that there was a double-turn lane." She nonetheless acknowledged "that does not excuse me being behind the wheel of a car."
Peterson's attorney argued that the accident was not a foreseeable consequence of driving with a revoked license, and that therefore the court should not take it into consideration at sentencing. The attorney also argued that any restitution should be pursued separately through a civil case, where fault could be apportioned between the parties. The attorney noted that the bus driver stated that when he saw Peterson turn her wheel, he took some evasive action, and that it was unclear how a civil jury would evaluate the relative responsibility of the parties.
Based on Peterson's criminal history and the harm to the bus driver, the court imposed a sentence of 365 days with 190 days suspended (175 days to serve). The court also ordered Peterson to pay restitution for the accident, and, pursuant to Alaska Criminal Rule 32.6(c)(2), the court gave the Municipality ninety days to file a proposed restitution amount.
After the Municipality filed a proposed restitution judgment, the court ordered restitution totaling $38,831.20 — $30,460 to the bus driver (for lost wages and transportation costs) and $8,371.20 to the Municipality of Anchorage (for damage caused by the bus to the light pole).
Peterson now appeals her sentence, arguing that the court erred in considering the accident when formulating a term of imprisonment and in imposing restitution.
Why we reverse the restitution order
We first address the restitution order. Peterson was convicted, under AMC 09.28.019(B)(1), of driving with a revoked license. This ordinance prohibits a person, acting with criminal negligence as to the status of their driver's license, from driving a motor vehicle when that person's license has been revoked.
Peterson argues that the restitution order is improper because the crime of driving with a revoked license is a regulatory offense without a direct victim. She notes that the ordinance prohibiting driving with a revoked license does not contain any element involving injury or a risk of injury, and contends that evidence about the accident would likely have been inadmissible had she proceeded to trial on the charge.
Alaska's restitution statutes provide that, unless a victim declines restitution, a court shall order restitution for the actual damages or loss caused by the conduct for which the defendant was convicted.
Peterson was not charged with reckless or careless driving, offenses which would require the Municipality to demonstrate the manner in which Peterson drove.
Alaska courts have not previously addressed the question of whether a defendant can be ordered to pay restitution for a traffic accident that occurred while the defendant was driving with a revoked license, where the sole charge and conviction was driving with a revoked license. But several other state courts have held that the mere occurrence of an accident while the defendant is driving with a revoked license is
In State v. McDonough, McDonough was involved in an accident when the vehicle he was operating collided with a taxicab.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court vacated the restitution judgment.
In State v. LaFlam, the defendant drove his van through the front of a store, causing damage to the building.
The Vermont Supreme Court vacated the restitution order.
Two other courts have vacated restitution orders issued under similar circumstances, but left open the possibility that restitution could be ordered under certain narrow circumstances where the government has shown that the accident was the natural and
Like the majority of states that have addressed this question,
As cases from other states demonstrate, establishing a proximate cause connection under these circumstances is exceedingly difficult. The act of obtaining a license does not guarantee that the driver will not cause accidents, and the fact that a defendant's license was suspended or revoked does not necessarily make it more likely that the person will be responsible for an accident in the future.
Indeed, in the tort context, driving without a valid license does not generally constitute evidence of negligence. In that context — i.e., in a civil lawsuit arising from a traffic accident — the majority of jurisdictions have held that evidence that one of the parties drove in violation of a driver's license restriction is not admissible on the question of negligence in the absence of a causal connection between the violation and the injury.
Moreover, as we previously noted, negligent operation is not an element of the crime of driving with a revoked license. Accordingly, awarding restitution for driving with a revoked license requires a trial court not only to make findings about the amount of loss and damages (findings that are standard in the restitution context), but also to make additional findings about a defendant's conduct — findings beyond those that are inherent in the criminal conviction itself.
Under our restitution statute, this is not permitted. We have previously stated that "consideration of the precise crime for which [a defendant] was convicted is of paramount importance" in determining whether a person is an "aggrieved party" for purposes of restitution.
Similarly, in a pair of cases — Nelson v. State and Schwing v. State — the Alaska Supreme Court and this Court held that only losses caused by the conduct underlying the conviction are compensable in restitution. These courts therefore reversed the award of restitution for items stolen in uncharged burglaries and uncharged drug sales, respectively.
Here, the prosecutor did not present any evidence about why Peterson's license was revoked. The court stated that it "believe[d]" Peterson never got her license and therefore never learned the rules of the road, but acknowledged that it had "not looked into this."
In addition, the district court justified its restitution order by finding that Peterson violated the rules of the road when she "turned into another lane" and "caused the accident." But this is essentially a finding of negligence untethered from Peterson's criminal conviction — a finding regarding her underlying conduct for which Peterson was not charged or tried. Indeed, if Peterson had originally been charged with recklessly causing physical injury to the bus driver, and the charge dismissed as part of her plea agreement with the Municipality with no agreement to pay restitution for his injuries, our case law would not permit the imposition of restitution.
We acknowledge that the state's licensing requirements, and the related driving with a revoked license statute, serve important purposes. The state has a strong interest in ensuring that its drivers are properly trained and know the rules of the road.
But without a link between the losses for which restitution was ordered and Peterson's criminal conduct,
This does not mean that a victim is without recourse when an unlicensed driver negligently causes an accident. Rather, the victim is free to sue the defendant in a tort action for negligence. Such an action ensures that the victim can recover for any damages caused by the defendant's negligence. It also ensures that the defendant is entitled to the substantive protections (e.g., the ability to argue comparative fault) and procedural protections (e.g., a jury trial) that are not generally available in a criminal restitution hearing.
Accordingly, for the reasons discussed, we reverse the restitution order.
Why we affirm Peterson's term of imprisonment
Peterson also argues that, because causing an injury or accident is not an element of the offense for which she was convicted, the court erred when it considered the accident and injuries to the bus driver when imposing her sentence. But the information germane to sentencing is not so restricted, either by statute or case law.
The goals of sentencing, as set out in AS 12.55.005, are broad, and under this statute, judges are required to consider "the circumstances of the offense" when imposing a sentence.
Here, the district court evaluated the totality of the circumstances and the Chaney criteria (as codified in AS 12.55.005), identifying deterrence and isolation as the primary reasons for a more substantial term of imprisonment.
One of the primary purposes of the prohibition on driving with a revoked license is to protect the public. And the prohibition on driving with a revoked license, together with the attendant penalties for violating the statute, is designed in part to deter persons with suspended licenses from driving on public highways.
We acknowledge that it may appear at least facially inconsistent to conclude that a court cannot rely on uncharged conduct as the basis for a restitution order, while at the same time endorsing the court's reliance on that same conduct in crafting a term of imprisonment. But under the restitution statute, a defendant's liability is limited to the proximate effects of the offense of conviction, since restitution is intended to allow crime victims and others who have suffered losses as a result of a defendant's criminal conduct to recover monetary damages that would otherwise be subject to recovery only in a civil suit.
In contrast, the permissible term of imprisonment for a given criminal conviction is subject to a statutory maximum — a limit that the court may not exceed, regardless of the defendant's uncharged conduct. So long as a defendant has notice and an opportunity to contest the conduct on which the court relies, and the court makes appropriate findings regarding the defendant's conduct and how that conduct relates to the Chaney criteria, we have held that a court may rely even on conduct for which the defendant was acquitted in formulating an appropriate sentence.
For these reasons, we REVERSE the order of restitution. We otherwise AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.