Denial of leave to file successive petition reversed where day-for-day eligible 80-year sentence constituted de facto life sentence

The appellant in People v. Peacock, 2019 IL App (1st) 170308 appealed the trial court’s decision denying leave to file his successive post-conviction petition, on the grounds that his sentence constituted a de facto life sentence and violated the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution. The Appellate Court of Illinois First Judicial District ultimately reversed and remanded the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County for further proceedings.

Appellant Taki Peacock is currently service concurrent respective sentences of 80 years, 30 years, 30 years, and 30 years of imprisonment for convictions related to the 1995 first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated vehicular hijacking, and armed robbery of his victim, Rufus Taylor. At the time of offense, Peacock was 17 years old. Id. at ¶ 1.

On September 12, 2016, appellant filed a successive postconviction petition, in which he challenged the constitutionality of his 80-year sentence, arguing that it was an unconstitutional de facto life sentence pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Appellant was denied leave by the circuit court to file his petition on October 12, 2016, ruling that the petition was untimely, and appellant had failed to file a motion for leave to file the petition. Id. at ¶ 2. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Peacock argued that he should have been permitted to file his petition because the 80-year sentence imposed on his conviction as a juvenile constitutes a de facto life sentence and thus violates the eighth amendment of the US Constitution and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution.  On appeal, Peacock acknowledged that he may qualify for day-to-day credit, and, accordingly, will be required to serve at least 40 years (50%) of his sentence. Peacock argued that his de facto life sentence still triggers the protections of Miller and requires a sentencing court to consider his youth and attendant characteristics in sentencing. Id. at ¶ 3. Peacock argued that the circuit court erred by not doing so and, as a result, thecase should be remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

In response, the State argued that leave was properly denied, and appellant’s sentence does not constitute a de facto life sentence because he was only “likely [to] serve 40 years.” The State points to appellant’s IDOC projected discharge date of August 31, 2035, exactly 40 years from the date he went into custody, as evidence of this fact. Id. at ¶ 4.

This appeal had previously been stayed pending an Illinois Supreme Court decision in People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327. Id. at ¶ 5. The Supreme Court has since decided Buffer, allowing for the stay on this case to be lifted.

In Buffer, the Supreme Court held that “a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender does not constitute a de facto life sentence in violation of the eighth amendment.” However, any sentence in excess of 40 years does. Id. at ¶ 11. This determination was made in accordance with previous holdings from Miller, which stated that in order to prevail in similar claims, “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 ¶ 7. Following the decision in Buffer, both parties in this appeal were permitted to file supplemental briefs to address the impact of the ruling.

In his brief, Peacock argued that the ruling in Buffer supports his previously stated arguments regarding his sentence. Peacock acknowledged that while there is some confusion regarding explicit 40 year sentences (namely whether or not a sentence of exactly 40 years can be considered a de facto life sentence or not), his sentence should be considered in excess of 40 years because it is not guaranteed that he will serve only 40 years of his sentence, as his sentence is “entirely dependent upon the condition that he will not forfeit even one day one day of good conduct credit.” Id. at ¶ 14.

In its brief, the State contended that appellant’s sentence, having recently had his projected release date shortened by 15 days to August 16, 2035, is now only “39 years, 11 months and 16 days in prison,” which under Buffer cannot be constitute a de facto life sentence. Id. at ¶ 15.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Buffer, however, the Appellate Court held that Peacock’s 80-year sentence in this case did constitute a de facto life sentence. Id. at ¶ 17. The Court expanded that they need not make a determination regarding de facto life sentences on the dividing line of 40 years (the State’s argument) because the sentence imposed was an 80-year sentence with the “mere possibility of release after 40 years,” not a 40-year sentence. Id. at ¶ 19. The Court also agreed with Peacock’s argument that he’s not guaranteed receipt of day-for-day credit.

The Appellate Court also concluded that the trial court erred in failing to consider Peacock’s youth and his attendant characteristics in imposing his sentence, despite the State’s assertions to the contrary. Id. at ¶ 21. The court stated, in accordance with the Supreme Court, that the attendant characteristics that must be considered at sentencing in order to justify a de facto life sentence are “the juvenile defendant’s chronological age at the time of the offense and any evidence of his particular immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; (2) the juvenile defendant’s family and home environment; (3) the juvenile defendant’s degree of participation in the homicide and any evidence of familial or peer pressures that may have affected him; (4) the juvenile defendant’s incompetence, including his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors and his incapacity to assist his own attorneys; and (5) the juvenile defendant’s prospects for rehabilitation.” Id. at ¶ 22. The Appellate Court held that the trial court’s mere awareness of Peacock’s age and consideration of the PSI was not “the equivalent to a full consideration of those special characteristics” and cannot be considered evidence of such. Id. at ¶ 23-24.

Ultimately, the appellate court held that Peacock’s sentence violated the eighth amendment, vacated the sentence as unconstitutional, reversed the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and remanded for a new sentencing hearing. Id. at ¶ 24-26.

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