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New wrinkle in ‘inherent authority’?

A Virginia trial judge has no “inherent authority” to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor after he found the defendant guilty of grand larceny in a bench trial, the Virginia Court of Appeals said today.

The defendant was hoping for a different result in light of the recent Virginia Supreme Court decisions in Moreau v. Fuller and Hernandez v. Commonwealth, but the appellate panel said the new case, Taylor v. Commonwealth, presented a different kind of deferred disposition.

Moreau and Hernandez merely hold that a trial court has discretion to continue a case for future disposition, according to the panel opinion by Judge D. Arthur Kelsey. Those cases don’t endorse acquitting a defendant of grand larceny after finding the evidence proved her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In May 2009, Chesapeake Circuit Judge Randall D. Smith found Kaitlin Airele Taylor guilty of grand larceny of merchandise from a Sears store in a bench trial. Taylor’s lawyer asked if the court would “entertain a motion at the time of sentencing to find her guilty of a misdemeanor versus a felony.” At the sentencing hearing, counsel argued that Taylor had assisted law enforcement in another matter, and again requested a reduction to a misdemeanor.

The trial judge denied the motion. The judge said it was the commonwealth’s role to determine the charge, and the judge’s role to determine whether the evidence met the charge. The trial court said its own ability to defer and dismiss criminal charges were “legislative decisions.”

Neither Moreau nor Hernandez addressed whether the decision ultimately made by the trial court, after a discretionary continuance, could be one that acquitted a criminal defendant whose guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, Kelsey said. Neither decision supported Taylor’s claim.

The trial judge “correctly held it had no authority – constitutional, common law or statutory – to acquit Taylor of grand larceny” after a finding of guilty, Kelsey wrote in an opinion joined by panel members Judge William G. Petty and Judge Randolph A. Beales.

Chesapeake lawyer James B. Melton, who represented Taylor, said he expects to appeal today’s decision.
By Deborah Elkins

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