John Ballard April 12, 2023
State of Tennessee v. Gavin Tyler Sheets, No. M2022-00538-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Apr. 12, 2023).
Procedural History: The Defendant, Gavin Tyler Sheets, was indicted on four counts for vehicular homicide by intoxication, vehicular homicide by recklessness, reckless endangerment, and underage driving while intoxicated. On October 13, 2021, the Defendant pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by recklessness and reckless endangerment, and the remaining charges were dismissed. On April 4, 2022, the trial court sentenced the Defendant to six years' imprisonment for vehicular homicide and one year for reckless endangerment, to be served concurrently in the Tennessee Department of Correction. The Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by denying his request for judicial diversion and alternative sentencing.
Facts: On October 20, 2020, the Defendant was driving his vehicle at a speed of 112 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone on Sheegog Lane in Maury County, Tennessee. The Defendant lost control of his vehicle and crashed, resulting in the death of Ms. Jillian Brown and injuries to Tyler Blalock. The Defendant was charged with vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment.
At the sentencing hearing, the State presented the testimony of Ms. Brown and Mr. Brown, the victim's parents, as well as Trooper Ricky Alexander, Jr., an expert in crash reconstruction. Officer Michael Barnick testified that he had previously cited the Defendant for reckless driving in July 2020. Officer Monique Wells testified about the Defendant's presentence investigation report, which indicated that the Defendant had a prior conviction for reckless driving and a moderate risk of reoffending. The Defendant presented testimony from his mother, Amanda Patrick, his supervisor at Lee Company, Justin Findley, and his former neighbor, Norman Bryant.
Whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying the Defendant's request for judicial diversion and alternative sentencing.
No, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the Defendant's request for judicial diversion and alternative sentencing.
Reasoning: The trial court considered the Defendant's presentence investigation report, physical and mental health condition, social history, the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense, the Defendant's prior criminal history, and his amenability to rehabilitation in determining the appropriate sentence. The court found the Defendant's behavior to be "enormous, gross, or heinous" and that a sentence of six years' imprisonment was necessary to protect the public and serve as a deterrent to others. The court also denied the Defendant's request for judicial diversion, stating that it could not and would not consider it. The trial court's consideration of the probation factors adequately covered its analysis on judicial diversion. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the Defendant's request for judicial diversion and alternative sentencing. The judgments of the trial court were affirmed.
Parker and Electroplating are two Tennessee Supreme Court cases that established the six factors to consider when determining whether to grant judicial diversion.
Amenity to correction
Circumstances of the offense
Physical and mental health
Interests of the public and the defendant
The Defendant's amenability to correction is a factor that weighs against granting judicial diversion. In this case, the Defendant showed little willingness to change his behavior despite previous criminal convictions, including a recent conviction for reckless driving.
Additionally, the circumstances of the offense are significant, including the excessive speed, which was over 100 miles per hour, and more than two times the applicable speed limit, and the fact that the Defendant engaged in this conduct despite being on probation from a similar conviction less than a month before. The offenses occurred at night on a rural road familiar to the Defendant, and the offenses involved multiple victims, including the tragic loss of Jillian Brown.
The criminal record factor considers the defendant’s prior criminal history, including convictions and unconvicted criminal behavior such as unlawful substance use. The court may also consider proven facts from charges that were dismissed. In this case, the Defendant had a prior conviction for reckless driving, which occurred just a month before the current offenses. Moreover, the presentence investigation report indicated that the Defendant unlawfully smoked marijuana for a year before the crash and engaged in underage drinking of alcohol. The court found that the Defendant's criminal history weighed heavily against a grant of judicial diversion.
The fourth factor in the diversion analysis examines “the accused’s social history.” In weighing this factor, trial courts may consider the defendant’s age, general reputation, education, employment, home environment, community involvement, and family relationships and responsibilities. These considerations are viewed as a proxy for stability to assess whether effective rehabilitation is likely. In this case, the Defendant was nineteen years old at the time of the crimes, is a high school graduate, and has been consistently employed since 2017. The Defendant has the support of his family and former neighbor, and his current employer testified in support of him. Overall, the Defendant’s social history weighs in favor of granting diversion, but its weight is insignificant in the overall context of the case.
Physical and mental health
The fifth factor in the diversion analysis examines "the accused's physical and mental health." This factor weighs neutrally where nothing in the record "reflects anything of note regarding the Defendant's mental and physical health." It also may weigh neutrally where no physical or mental health condition prevents the defendant from complying with probation conditions. In this case, the record shows that the Defendant was in good physical and mental health. Although the Defendant's mother testified that the Defendant was experiencing depression and anxiety since the crash, the Defendant did not report any mental health issues or diagnoses to Officer Wells during his presentence investigation. He told Officer Wells he had never sought treatment from a mental health professional. The Department's risk and needs assessment scored the Defendant "low" for any needed intervention for mental health issues. In the presentence investigation report, the Defendant identified that he suffers from a "brain injury" due to the crash, and he said that the symptoms manifest in occasional memory loss and headaches. However, the record does not support a finding that the crash left the Defendant incapable of performing day-to-day tasks, and we note that he has been gainfully employed as a plumber's apprentice since the crash. The Defendant has the demonstrated physical and mental ability to comply with the conditions of probation and sentencing. As such, this factor weighs neutrally in the analysis.
The sixth factor in the diversion analysis is deterrence, which examines "the deterrence value to the accused as well as others." In this case, the Defendant has a history of driving recklessly at excessively high speeds, and his previous conviction for reckless driving less than a month before this crash had seemingly no deterrent effect on his future decisions and conduct. The court concludes that the record warrants the "more emphatic reminder" to the Defendant that his reckless actions carry consequences. As such, this factor weighs significantly against granting judicial diversion.
Interests of the public and the defendant
The last factor is the interests of the public and the defendant, which examines whether granting diversion would serve the interests of the public as well as the accused. The trial court may consider whether diversion would depreciate the seriousness of the offense, the collateral consequences of a conviction that would protect the public, and the nature of the victim’s injuries. The defendant’s interest in avoiding felony convictions may also be weighed, as well as whether a felony conviction would impair future employment or create a stigma. In this case, the Defendant would benefit from diversion by avoiding felony convictions, but granting diversion would depreciate the seriousness of the offenses and would not serve the interests of the public.