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State v. Charbonneau

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 26, 2016

State of Vermont
v.
Toby Charbonneau

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division Alison S. Arms, J.

          James A. Hughes, Franklin County State's Attorney, St. Albans, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Anna Saxman, Deputy Defender General, and Ashton Roberts, Law Clerk (On the Brief), Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Defendant pleaded guilty to felony possession of stolen property in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 2561(b) and misdemeanor possession of stolen property in violation of the same statute. He was subsequently ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $35, 791. On appeal, he challenges the restitution order. The issues on appeal are (1) whether an order of restitution must relate to the damage caused by the criminal conduct for which defendant pleaded guilty; (2) whether restitution is limited to items that were not recovered and returned to the victim; and (3) whether the trial court is required to make findings as to a defendant's ability to pay in a restitution order. We reverse on the first issue.

         ¶ 2. On March 9, 2014, the victims notified the St. Albans City Police that their private residence had been burgled on March 7 or 8. The victims reported thousands of dollars' worth of property as having been stolen and filed claims with two insurance companies for the stolen items: one for $28, 274 and one for $23, 956.97, amounting to a total of $52, 230.97 in claimed losses. The victims' insurance providers made payments of $9172.30 and $12, 000, for a total of $21, 172.

         ¶ 3. The victims subsequently notified the police that defendant and his partner had posted some of the items reported as stolen from their residence on the Franklin County Facebook website, "Buy, Sell, or Trade." The police applied for and received a search warrant for defendant's residence. During a search, the police recovered fifteen items identified by the victims as stolen from their residence during the burglary, and these items were later returned to the victims.

         ¶ 4. On March 25, 2014, defendant was charged with felony possession of stolen property valued in excess of $900 in violation of 13 V.S.A. § 2561(b). At a change of plea hearing on January 5, 2015, defendant pleaded guilty to felony possession of stolen property in violation of § 2561(b) and to misdemeanor possession of stolen property in violation of the same statute.[1] There was no colloquy as to the specific items defendant admitted to having possessed, and there was no mention as to specific items that were recovered from defendant's residence. The State described the factual basis for the plea as resulting from a search of defendant's residence, where "several items of property that were identified as belonging to the [victims'] family" were recovered.

         ¶ 5. The trial court subsequently held a restitution hearing, where neither defendant nor the State objected to the trial court adopting the findings of fact relative to the loss amount and value of the items stolen from the victims as derived from testimony and findings at defendant's partner's restitution hearing.[2] This included testimony that defendant and his partner had purchased the items from an individual offering them for sale out of the back of his car, and that they then advertised the items for sale on the Franklin County Facebook website "Buy, Sell, or Trade." At defendant's partner's hearing, the trial court determined that the recovered and returned items had a collective actual cash value (ACV) of $6765.70, but that because they had been returned to the victims, there was no material loss. For this reason, the trial court did not order defendant's partner to pay restitution.

         ¶ 6. At defendant's restitution hearing, the State sought restitution for the victims' total uninsured loss as a result of the burglary, which it argued to be $35, 791. This figure included the value of the items that were recovered and returned to the victims, as well as the value of the remaining items reported as stolen but not recovered during the search of defendant's residence. At the hearing, the trial court considered testimony from one of the victims. She testified that defendant posted a photograph on Facebook depicting a TV stolen during the burglary, and that she had seen defendant approximately one week before the burglary parked across from her home. The court also considered testimony from Detective Trevor Sergeant, who had investigated the burglary, that he had observed a shoe print in the snow outside the victims' home with a distinctive "x" mark, and that he had seized a pair of Nike shoes from defendant's home with an "x" pattern on the heel. The number of shoes with a similar pattern was not established.

         ¶ 7. Considering findings from defendant's partner's restitution hearing, as well as the victims' testimony and that of Detective Sergeant, the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant was seen in some proximity to the victims' residence a week before the burglary, possessed a shoe with a similar print left at the scene of the burglary, and possessed and offered for sale a TV reported as stolen during the burglary but which was not among the property defendant alleged was purchased out of the back of a car. Based on these findings, the court concluded that defendant had committed the burglary of the victims' home in early March 2014. Based on the findings and conclusions, and after noting that "no evidence was offered regarding defendant's ability to pay" restitution, the trial court calculated the victims' material loss as the value of the items claimed under both insurance policies ($52, 230.97), minus the amount paid by the insurance companies ($21, 172), for a total of $35, 791.[3] Defendant appealed.

         ¶ 8. On appeal, defendant challenges the trial court's restitution order. Specifically, defendant contends that the trial court erred in ordering restitution for losses attributed to an offense other than the charged offense; that the trial court erred in failing to make findings as to defendant's ability to pay; and that the trial court improperly included in its restitution order items recovered and returned to the victim, which were not material losses as defined under the statute. "We review restitution orders for an abuse of discretion, and interpret controlling statutes de novo." State v. Gorton, 2014 VT 1, ¶ 8, 195 Vt. 460, 90 A.3d 901.

         ¶ 9. We first address defendant's assertion that the trial court erred in ordering restitution for losses attributable to the burglary of the victims' residence, because the burglary and resulting losses were not directly related to defendant's offense of possession of stolen property. It is undisputed that the factual basis for defendant's plea was that several items of the victims' property were recovered from defendant's residence; that defendant's plea did not include the possession of any items other than those recovered; and that defendant was not charged with, nor did he admit to, the underlying burglary of the victims' residence. Nonetheless, the trial court's order included both the value of those items recovered from defendant's residence and the value of the property reported as stolen from the victims' residence during the March 2014 burglary but not found at defendant's residence. Defendant contends that that the trial court erred in finding that he had committed the burglary, and moreover, that the absence of a direct link between his plea and the burglary necessitates the reversal of the restitution order for losses attributed to the burglary.

         ¶ 10. Vermont's restitution statute is intended to compensate victims for their "material loss, " 13 V.S.A. § 7043(a), which is defined as an "uninsured property loss, uninsured out-of-pocket monetary loss, uninsured lost wages, and uninsured medical expenses." Id. § 7043(a)(2). To support a restitution award, the State must demonstrate "causation between the defendant's criminal act and the victim's loss." State v. Forant, 168 Vt. 217, 222, 719 A.2d 399, 403 (1998). We have interpreted the causation element as requiring that restitution orders "relate directly to the damage caused by the defendant's criminal act for which he was convicted." Id. at 222-23, 719 A.2d at 403 (holding that expenses incurred by domestic-assault victim to change locks and telephone number were "indirect costs" from crime and therefore "not recoverable as restitution"). "A restitution order may not include amounts resulting from ...


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