In ground-breaking new decision, Illinois Supreme Court determines what constitutes a de facto life sentence for juveniles

In People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed, and ultimately affirmed, an appellate court’s decision to overturn the Cook County circuit court’s dismissal of a pro se post-conviction petition filed by the petitioner, Dimitri Buffer.

The petition asserted that a 50-year prison sentence for a crime committed by a 16-year-old was unconstitutional, as applied to the petitioner. The circuit court of Cook County initially dismissed the petition, yet their dismissal was promptly reversed by the appellate court, who held that the petitioner’s sentence was “imposed without consideration of his youth and its attendant characteristics” Id. at ¶ 1. Thus, the appellate court ruled that the sentence issued by the circuit court of Cook County constituted a violation of the petitioner’s eighth amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The appellate court vacated the petitioner’s sentence and remanded the case to the circuit court for re-sentencing. Id. at ¶ 2. However, while the Supreme Court did affirm the judgement of the appellate court, the Court’s affirmation was made on different grounds than that of the appellate court. Id. at ¶ 3.

Prior to appeal, a jury found the defendant Buffer guilty of four counts of first degree murder, and specifically found that “defendant personally discharged a firearm that caused the victim’s death.” Id. at ¶ 5. In 2010, at the time of sentencing, Illinois law prescribed a sentencing range of 20 to 60 years for first degree murder and mandated a minimum 25-year additional prison term for personally discharging a firearm that “caused the victim’s death.” The Cook County circuit court merged the four first degree murder counts, sentencing defendant to 25 years for first degree murder with a 25-year mandatory firearm add-on, for an aggregate sentence of 50 years (followed by 3 years of mandatory supervised release). Id. at ¶ 5.

At the time of defendant’s direct appeal, June 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that “imposing on a juvenile offender a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole, without consideration of the defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics,” violated the eighth amendment. Id. at ¶ 6. Petitioner unsuccessfully filed a motion seeking leave to file a supplemental brief addressing the applicability of Miller to his sentence. However, the court denied defendant’s motion for leave and ultimately affirmed the Cook County circuit court conviction and sentence. People v. Buffer, 2012 IL App (1st) 102411-U, leave to appeal denied, No. 115148 (Ill. Jan. 30, 2013). Id. at ¶ 6.

Following aMarch 2014 opinion by the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, which held that Miller applied retroactively to cases on collateral review  (People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595), defendant filed a pro se post-conviction petition in the circuit court, relying on Miller. The petition argued that petitioner’s 50-year sentence violated the eight amendment because it “constituted a de facto life sentence”. Id. at ¶ 7. The Cook County circuit court summarily dismissed the petition as “frivolous and patently without merit.” Id. at ¶ 7.

Defendant appealed from the Cook County circuit court’s dismissal of his post-conviction petition on September 5, 2014. While the appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion reached in Davis that Miller applied retroactively to cases on collateral review. See Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016). During that same period of time, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois also decided People v. Reyes, 2016 IL 119271, extending Miller’s holding barring juveniles from mandatory natural life sentences to include mandatory de facto sentences. Id. at ¶ 8. The appellate court reversed the Cook County circuit court’s summary dismissal of defendant’s post-conviction petition on the grounds that “(1) pursuant to Reyes, defendant’s 50-year sentence was a mandatory de facto life sentence and (2) the circuit court failed to consider defendant’s youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing sentence.” Id. at ¶ 9. The court determined that Buffer’s sentence violated his eight amendment against cruel and unusual punishment and  vacated and remanded the case to the circuit court for re-sentencing under the juvenile sentencing statute (730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105 (West 2016)). The State appealed the appellate court’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. Id. at ¶ 10.

The Illinois Supreme Court evaluated the State’s appeal and the constitutional issues involved in the original conviction and sentence in three distinct areas: the eighth amendment claim, the de facto life sentence issue, and the proper remedy. Id. at ¶ 11, ¶ 28, and ¶ 43.

As to Buffer’s eighth amendment claim, the court held that, in accordance with the United States Supreme Court view, Miller was a “substantive constitutional rule that applied retroactively.” Id. at ¶ 23. The Court also cited Montgomery as substantive reaffirmation of the holdings of Miller. The Court “concluded that Miller and Montgomery send an unequivocal message: Life sentences, whether mandatory or discretionary, for juvenile defendants are disproportionate and violate the eighth amendment, unless the trial court considers youth and its attendant characteristics.” Id. at ¶ 25. Six months later, the Court held once again, in Reyes, 2016 IL 119271, “that sentencing a juvenile offender to a mandatory term of years that is the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment.” Id. at ¶ 26. As a result, the Court held that in order to “prevail on a claim based on Miller and its progeny, a defendant sentenced for an offense committed while a juvenile must show that (1) the defendant was subject to a life sentence, mandatory or discretionary, natural or de facto, and (2) the sentencing court failed to consider youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing the sentence.” Id. at ¶ 27.

As to de facto life sentences, the Court attempted to “to determine when a juvenile defendant’s prison term is long enough to be considered a de facto life sentence without parole.” Acknowledging, and ultimately rejecting, the wide range of opinions on the subject, the Court looked to the General Assembly for guidance as the “clearest and most reliable objective evidence of contemporary values is the legislation enacted by the country’s legislatures.” Id. at ¶ 34. In accordance with Miller, “the General Assembly has determined that the specified first-degree murders that would justify natural life imprisonment for adult offenders would warrant a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years for juvenile offenders.” Id. at ¶ 39. As a result, the Court chose to “to draw a line at 40 years” for a de facto life sentence. Id. at ¶ 40. The Court thus stated, “because defendant’s sentence was greater than 40 years, we conclude that defendant received a de facto life sentence” and vacated the sentence as unconstitutional pursuant to Miller, Montgomery, Reyes and Holman. Id. at ¶ 42.

As to the remedy, the Court held that “Based on the particular issue raised in this appeal and in the interests of judicial economy, we agree with the appellate court that the proper remedy is to vacate defendant’s sentence and to remand for a new sentencing hearing.” Id. at ¶ 47.

Buffer is likely to have a significant impact on the development of juvenile sentencing law in the state of Illinois. In fact, just today, the court vacated my client’s 45-year sentence vacated pursuant to Buffer after his successive post-conviction petition was granted.

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