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Court of Appeals Limits Ability to Deviate from Mandatory Minimums

November 10, 2015

In Evans v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that, in regards to a deviation from the mandatory minimum sentence in a sex offense case, the phrase "relevant similar transaction" includes a conviction for another sex offense charged within the same indictment, even when both charges stem from the same incident.

The defendant was convicted of one count of child molestation and one count of sexual exploitation of children. At sentencing, the defendant argued for a deviation from the mandatory minimum sentence for the child molestation offense. The trial court found that it was not authorized to depart from the statutory minimum because the defendant’s conviction for the sexual exploitation charge constituted a “relevant similar transaction” which statutorily barred the court from departing from the mandatory minimum.

The statute in question provides, in pertinent part, that a court may not deviate from the statutory minimum sentence if it finds evidence of a “relevant similar transaction”.

On appeal, the defendant argued that it was improper for the trial court to view the exploitation charge as a “relevant similar transaction” since that charge was in the same indictment and arose out of the same incident. Specifically, the defendant argued that the legislature intended these relevant transactions to be limited to independent, extrinsic acts separate from the offenses of conviction.

On appeal, the Court noted that “relevant similar transaction” is not defined by the statute. It further explained that, absent a statutory definition, courts should diligently look for the intention of the legislature. Employing a “plain language” approach to the statute, the Court of Appeals found that the legislature unambiguously considered the offenses of exploitation and molestation to be relevant similar transactions, because they are both defined as sexual offenses.

While the defendant cited to case law where similar transactions were understood to mean extrinsic, independent acts, the Court held that this reliance was misguided. The Court argued that those cases were distinct from the present issue because those cases dealt with similar transaction evidence being introduced at trial. It was significant to the Court that, in the defendant’s case, this evidence was being considered at sentencing and had already be proven at trial.

Thus, a defendant charged with multiple sexual offenses stemming from the same incident will be deemed ineligible for a deviation from the mandatory minimum sentence, because a trial court is authorized to consider each offense to be a relevant similar transaction.

This decision is troubling since defendants in sex offense cases are quite frequently charged with more than one offense involving the same victim and arising from the same set of circumstances. A “relevant similar transaction” has typically been thought of as one that involves a different victim or that was committed at a different time. It would appear that the legislature was contemplating this when it granted trial courts the discretion to deviate in certain cases.

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