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State v. Boecker

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 26, 2017

State of Minnesota Respondent,
v.
Ralph Joseph Boecker, Appellant.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts.

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and James C. Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Tori K. Stewart, Assistant County Attorney, Hastings, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Steven P. Russett, Assistant Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         The plain language of Minnesota Statutes section 169A.24, subdivision 1(3) (2016), authorizes the use of a 1998 felony conviction of criminal vehicular operation under Minnesota Statutes section 609.21, subdivision 2a (1996), to enhance a conviction of driving while impaired to a first-degree offense.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, Justice.

         Appellant Ralph Joseph Boecker pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree driving while impaired (DWI) after the district court found that his 1998 conviction for criminal vehicular operation enhanced his 2015 DWI charge. See Minn. Stat. § 169A.24, subd. 1(3) (2016); Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 2a (1996). Boecker argues that he is entitled to withdraw this plea because his 1998 conviction is not included in the list of predicate felonies in section 169A.24, which enhance a DWI charge to first-degree DWI. The sole issue here is whether a criminal vehicular operation conviction from 1998, a year not specifically listed in the current version of the first-degree DWI statute, can be used to enhance a DWI charge to a first-degree offense. We hold that it can, and we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

         FACTS

         The facts here are undisputed. In 1997, Boecker caused a car accident that resulted in another driver suffering serious injuries. When the accident occurred, Boecker had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.13 and no valid driver's license. Following this accident, Boecker pleaded guilty to one count of criminal vehicular operation resulting in substantial bodily harm. See Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 2a (1996). His plea was accepted, and he was convicted in 1998.

         In January 2015, a police officer stopped Boecker after observing erratic driving. After the officer stopped the car, he noticed that Boecker's eyes were bloodshot and watery, Boecker was slurring his words, and a strong odor of alcoholic beverage emanated from inside the car. The officer brought Boecker to the police department where Boecker agreed to take a breath test. The test showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.14.

         Boecker was charged with two counts of first-degree DWI. He contested the use of his 1998 conviction to enhance his 2015 DWI charge to a first-degree offense, but the district court found sufficient probable cause for enhancement. Following the district court's finding, Boecker pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree DWI and received an executed sentence of 48 months with a 5-year conditional release term.

         Boecker appealed, contending that his 1998 conviction did not provide a valid factual basis for his first-degree DWI plea. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction. It first concluded that section 169A.24 is ambiguous as to whether Boecker's 1998 conviction is a predicate felony. State v. Boecker, 880 N.W.2d 391, 394, 396 (Minn.App. 2016). The court of appeals then applied the canons of construction for interpreting an ambiguous statute and noted that the Legislature's intent was explicitly stated in the 2012 session law: "The legislature's intent has always been that criminal vehicular operation convictions under both the pre-2007 and the post-2007 law be used for enhancing driving while impaired penalties . . . ." Id. at 395 (quoting Act of Apr. 23, 2012, ch. 222, § 4, 2012 Minn. Laws 685, 687); see Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2016).

         The court of appeals rejected Boecker's interpretation of the statute after it examined the Legislature's express intent and concluded that "Boecker cannot avoid liability for first-degree DWI simply because the [criminal vehicular operation] statute and the first-degree DWI statute have been renumbered, reorganized, and amended." 880 N.W.2d at 396. Instead, the court of appeals held that Boecker's 1998 criminal vehicular operation conviction is a predicate felony for his first-degree DWI conviction. Id.; see also Minn. Stat. § 169A.24, subd. 1(3); Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 2a(2)(i) (1996). We granted Boecker's petition for further review.

         ANALYSIS

         The question presented here is whether a conviction for criminal vehicular operation under section 609.21, subdivision 2a, from a year not specifically listed in the first-degree driving while impaired statute, section 169A.24, subdivision 1(3), can be used to enhance a subsequent DWI charge to a first-degree offense. The answer to this question resolves Boecker's claim that his guilty plea lacked an adequate factual basis.

         The validity of a guilty plea is a question of law, which is reviewed de novo. State v. Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d 90, 94 (Minn. 2010). A defendant may withdraw a guilty plea if it is "necessary to correct a manifest injustice." Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 1. "A manifest injustice exists if a guilty plea is not valid, " but a "defendant bears the burden of showing his plea was invalid." Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d at 94. "To be constitutionally valid, a guilty plea must be accurate, voluntary, and intelligent." Id. (citing State v. Trott, 338 N.W.2d 248, 251 (Minn. 1983)). When a plea is not established with a proper factual basis, it is not accurate and, therefore, is invalid. Id. A district court should not accept a guilty plea "unless the record supports the conclusion that the defendant actually committed an offense at least as serious as the crime to which he is pleading guilty." Trott, 338 N.W.2d at 251-52 (citing State v. Goulette, 258 N.W.2d 758, 762 (Minn. 1977)).

         Here, if the first-degree DWI statute does not include Boecker's 1998 criminal vehicular operation conviction as a predicate felony for enhancing his 2015 DWI charge, then the record would not show that Boecker actually committed an offense at least as serious as the crime to which he pleaded guilty. Without a valid predicate felony, the conduct that Boecker admitted to at the guilty plea hearing amounted to misdemeanor fourth-degree DWI. Minn. Stat. § 169A.27 (2016). To determine whether Boecker's plea was supported by an accurate factual basis, we must interpret the first-degree DWI statute, section 169A.24, subdivision 1(3).

         "Interpreting a sentencing statute is a question of law, which we review de novo." State v. Noggle, 881 N.W.2d 545, 547 (Minn. 2016) (citing State v. Leathers, 799 N.W.2d 606, 608 (Minn. 2011)). The plain language of the statute controls when the meaning of the statute is unambiguous. Minn. Stat. § 645.16. "A statute must be construed as a whole and the words and sentences therein 'are to be understood . . . in light of their context.' " Schmidt ex rel. P.M.S. v. Coons, 818 N.W.2d 523, 527 (Minn. 2012) (quoting Christensen v. Hennepin Transp. Co., 10 N.W.2d 406, 415 (Minn. 1943)). "We interpret a statute 'as a whole so as to harmonize and give effect to all its parts, and where possible, no word, phrase, or sentence will be held superfluous, void, or insignificant.' " 328 Barry Ave., LLC v. Nolan Props. Grp., LLC, 871 N.W.2d 745, 749 (Minn. 2015) (quoting Jackson v. Mortg. Elec. Registration Sys., Inc., 770 N.W.2d 487, 496 (Minn. 2009)). We may read multiple parts of a statute together to determine whether a statute is ambiguous. Christianson v. Henke, 831 N.W.2d 532, 537 (Minn. 2013) (citing Martin v. Dicklich, 823 N.W.2d 336, 344 (Minn. 2012)). "A statute is ambiguous only when the statutory language is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation." State v. Jones, 848 N.W.2d 528, 535 (Minn. 2014) (emphasis added) (quoting State v. Fleck, 810 N.W.2d 303, 307 (Minn. 2012)).

         Here, Boecker pleaded guilty to first-degree DWI, which is defined as:

Subdivision 1. Degree described. A person who violates section 169A.20 (driving while impaired) is guilty of first-degree driving while impaired if the person: . . .
(3) has previously been convicted of a felony under:
(i) Minnesota Statutes 2012, section 609.21 (criminal vehicular homicide and injury, substance-related offenses), subdivision 1, clauses (2) to (6);
(ii) Minnesota Statutes 2006, section 609.21 (criminal vehicular homicide and injury, substance-related offenses), subdivision 1, clauses (2) to (6); subdivision 2, clauses (2) to (6); subdivision 2a, clauses (2) to (6); subdivision 3, clauses (2) to (6); or subdivision 4, clauses (2) to (6); or
(iii) section 609.2112, subdivision 1, clauses (2) to (6); 609.2113, subdivision 1, clauses (2) to (6), subdivision 2, clauses (2) to (6) or subdivision 3, clauses (2) to (6); or 609.2114, subdivision 1, clauses ...

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