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State v. Ali

Supreme Court of Minnesota

May 17, 2017

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
v.
Mahdi Hassan Ali, Appellant.

         Hennepin County Office of Appellate Courts

          Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Jean Burdorf, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Cathryn Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Leslie J. Rosenberg, Assistant State Public Defender, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Perry L. Moriearty, University of Minnesota Law School, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Juvenile Law Center.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, and later clarified in Montgomery v. Louisiana, does not extend to a juvenile offender who received three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release for the murder of three individuals. 2. Appellant forfeited his equal protection claim by failing to raise it in the district court.

         3. The imposition of three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release does not unfairly exaggerate the criminality of appellant's conduct.

Affirmed.

          OPINION

          HUDSON, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Mahdi Hassan Ali ("Mahdi")[1] shot and killed three men during a robbery of the Seward Market when he was 16 years old.[2] Following a jury trial, he was convicted of three counts of murder that we affirmed on appeal. State v. Ali, 855 N.W.2d 235');">855 N.W.2d 235, 240 (Minn. 2014). He now challenges the district court's imposition of three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years on each sentence. According to Mahdi, the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), and later clarified in Montgomery v. Louisiana, ___U.S.___, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), should be extended to his case because his three consecutive sentences are, in the aggregate, the "functional equivalent" of life imprisonment without the possibility of release (LWOR). He also argues, for the first time, that his consecutive sentences violate his right to equal protection under the United States Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution. Finally, Mahdi argues that the district court abused its discretion when it sentenced him to three consecutive sentences because the sentences unfairly exaggerate the criminality of his conduct.

         Because Miller and Montgomery involved the imposition of a single sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and the United States Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the issue of whether consecutive sentences should be viewed separately when conducting a proportionality analysis under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, we decline to extend the Miller/Montgomery rule to include Mahdi and other similarly situated juvenile offenders. Mahdi also forfeited his equal protection claim when he failed to raise the claim in the district court. In addition, our review of sentences received by other juvenile offenders who were convicted of murdering multiple victims indicates that Mahdi's three consecutive sentences do not unfairly exaggerate the criminality of his conduct. For these reasons, we affirm.

         I.

         Appellant Mahdi Hassan Ali was charged with the shooting deaths of three men during a robbery of the Seward Market in Minneapolis on January 6, 2010. Ali, 855 N.W.2d at 240. The State alleged the following events occurred. When Mahdi entered the Seward Market, Osman Elmi, an employee of the store, and Mohamed Warfa, a relative of Elmi's, were sitting behind the store's counter. Id. Mahdi thrust a gun into Elmi's face and pulled Warfa to the ground. Id. When Anwar Mohammed, a store customer, walked through the front door, Mahdi shot him two times, including once in the head. Id. at 240-41. Mahdi's accomplice yelled in Somali, "Don't Kill" or "No Killing!" Id. at 241. After shooting Mohammed, Mahdi ran out of the store. Id. Shortly after, Mahdi returned and shot Warfa at least twice. Id. As Warfa's body fell, it held open the front door of the store. Id. Mahdi's accomplice jumped over Warfa and ran out the door of the store. Id. Mahdi chased Elmi through the store. Id. A rack of snacks tipped over and spilled as the two men raced around a corner, before Mahdi shot Elmi three times in the back. Id. The store's surveillance camera captured footage of the shootings. Id. Mahdi later told his cousin that he shot the three men because "they knew, " meaning they knew who he was. Id. at 243.

         In September 2011, a jury found Mahdi guilty of three counts of first-degree felony murder while committing or attempting to commit aggravated robbery, one count of first-degree premeditated murder, and two counts of second-degree murder. Id. In October 2011, the district court sentenced him to two consecutive sentences of life with the possibility of release after 30 years for the felony murders of Mohammed and Warfa (Counts I and II), and a mandatory LWOR sentence for the first-degree premeditated murder of Elmi (Count III). Id. Mahdi filed a direct appeal, which we stayed to allow postconviction proceedings to proceed. Id. at 244. After the postconviction court denied Mahdi's request for relief, we consolidated his direct and postconviction appeals. Id.

         In the consolidated appeal, we agreed that the mandatory sentence of LWOR was unconstitutional under Miller, 567 U.S. at 465, but we rejected Mahdi's argument that the district court's discretionary imposition of two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years for Counts I and II violated Miller. Ali, 855 N.W.2d at 256-58. We also rejected Mahdi's argument that the two consecutive sentences violated Article I, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution, which prohibits "cruel or unusual punishments." Ali, 855 N.W.2d at 258. We explained that the two consecutive sentences were not "cruel" under Article I, Section 5, because the sentences were not "disproportionate considering the gravity of the offenses the jury found that he committed." Ali, 855 N.W.2d at 259. We further explained that the two consecutive sentences were not "unusual" when compared to other offenders convicted of the same or similar offenses both inside and outside of Minnesota. Id. Ultimately, we affirmed the two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years (Counts I and II), but reversed the LWOR sentence (Count III) and remanded to the district court for resentencing on Count III, following a Miller hearing. Id. at 256, 258.

         On remand, the State argued there was no need to hold a Miller hearing because the State had decided not to seek a LWOR sentence on Count III. Instead, the State "stipulated"[3] that the district court could impose a third consecutive sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years. In explaining the State's position at the resentencing hearing, the prosecutor said, "[G]iven that the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the consecutive imposition of essentially the three life terms, [Mahdi] will be over 100 years old before he is eligible for parole, and [the State] felt that judicial economy would be best served by foregoing a Miller hearing in this particular case." The State also argued that the district court had previously received sufficient evidence about Mahdi's past to decide whether a third consecutive sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years was appropriate.

         Mahdi argued that despite the State's decision not to seek a LWOR sentence, the Eighth Amendment still required a Miller hearing because the imposition of three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years on each sentence (i.e., 90 years total) was the "functional equivalent" of a LWOR sentence. He also argued that a Miller hearing could not be held in his case without violating the separation of powers doctrine because the Legislature has not provided a framework for Miller hearings. Ultimately, Mahdi asked the district court to impose three concurrent sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after a total of 30 years.

         The district court determined that Mahdi's argument regarding the necessity of a Miller hearing was "moot" because the State had agreed to a third sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years to be served consecutively to the sentences on Counts I and II. The district court also concluded that the imposition of consecutive sentences, even if they could be considered the functional equivalent of a sentence of LWOR, was not the same as a mandatory LWOR sentence imposed for a single offense.

         As for Mahdi's motion for the imposition of concurrent sentences, the district court reasoned that it was bound by our previous decision in Ali, 855 N.W.2d at 235, which affirmed the two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years. The district court went on to state that "[e]ven if [it] had the discretion to impose concurrent sentences, it would not." It reasoned that "[t]he criteria listed . . . at the original sentencing hearing [were] still valid, " and that "[t]his was still a brutal, inexcusable murder of three innocent members of the community." According to the district court, "[a] plethora of information regarding Defendant's youthful age, personal background, and unique circumstances was presented to [the district] court prior to and during trial. All of this information was carefully considered in sentencing Counts I and II." On January 6, 2016, the district court imposed a third sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years, to be served consecutively with the sentences on the two other murder counts.

         On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery, ___ U.S. at ___, 136 S.Ct. at 718. The Court clarified that Miller barred "life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility." Montgomery, ___ U.S. at ___, 136 S.Ct. at 734.

         On April 5, 2016, Mahdi appealed from the district court's January 6 sentencing order, asserting three arguments. First, he argues that the rule announced in Miller, and later clarified in Montgomery, should be extended to his case because his three consecutive sentences are, in the aggregate, the "functional equivalent" of LWOR. Second, he argues, for what he acknowledges is the first time on this appeal, that his consecutive sentences violate his right to equal protection under the Minnesota Constitution. Third, he argues that the district court abused its discretion in sentencing him to consecutive sentences because the resulting aggregate sentence unfairly "exaggerates the criminality" of his conduct. We consider each argument in turn.

         II.

         We first address Mahdi's argument that we should extend the rule announced in Miller, and later clarified in Montgomery, to his case because his three consecutive sentences are, in the aggregate, the "functional equivalent" of LWOR. Mahdi contends that Montgomery made clear that "absent proof of permanent incorrigibility, a sentence violates the Eighth Amendment if it deprives a juvenile of a realistic possibility of release during the juvenile's natural life expectancy."[4] He also observes that Miller "did not carve out any exception for aggregate sentencing." Thus, according to Mahdi, the reasoning underlying the Miller/Montgomery rule applies with equal force when a district court imposes consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release that are, in the aggregate, the functional equivalent of a LWOR sentence.

         The State contends, [5] in part, that Mahdi's argument is fundamentally flawed because it fails to acknowledge that consecutive sentences must be viewed separately under the Eighth Amendment. The State relies on O'Neil v. Vermont, in which the United States Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether consecutive sentences for 307 liquor-law infractions violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 144 U.S. 323, 330-31 (1892). Although the Court ultimately concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the question, id. at 334-35, it quoted the reasoning of the underlying state supreme court:

It would scarcely be competent for a person to assail the constitutionality of the statute prescribing a punishment for burglary, on the ground that he had committed so many burglaries that, if punishment for each were inflicted on him, he might be kept in prison for life. The mere fact that cumulative punishments may be imposed for distinct offences in the same prosecution is not material upon this question. If the penalty were unreasonably severe for a single offence, the constitutional question ...

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