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Hunter v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

October 31, 2019



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Kathleen Kallaher Schmidt Department of Public Advocacy

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Emily Lucas Assistant Attorney General William Robert Long, Jr. Assistant Attorney General Jason Bradley Moore Assistant Attorney General



         A Jefferson County jury found Keantay Hunter guilty of murder, assault in the first degree, tampering with physical evidence, fleeing or evading police in the second degree, and possession of a handgun by a minor. He was sentenced to twenty-five (25) years in prison. This appeal followed as a matter of right. See Ky. Const. Section 110(2)(b). Having reviewed the arguments of the parties, we affirm the judgment of the Jefferson Circuit Court in part, reverse in part, and remand to the circuit court to enter a judgment in accordance with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the morning of July 17, 2012, Jesse Williams and Chardedric Cooper were in Williams's bed in his house in west Louisville. When they fell asleep, no one else was present in the house. Cooper awoke when she heard a loud noise like a firework. She heard another loud noise and felt a sharp pain in her leg. Williams was on the floor and unresponsive. Williams had been shot in the chest and killed. Cooper had been shot in the leg. Shortly thereafter, she called 911.

         Sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 that same morning, three Louisville-Metro Police officers were patrolling the area in an unmarked car. They saw 17-year-old Keantay Hunter jogging with his hands in the air as if he were attempting to flag down a nearby car. Hunter had known Williams and Cooper for several years and had spent the night at Williams's home several times. Hunter was shirtless, wearing basketball shorts and flip flops. The officers noticed a heavy object in Hunter's shorts pocket that they believed to be a gun. When the officers exited their car to stop Hunter and yelled "Police!", Hunter ran. The officers gave chase, as did back up officers that had arrived at the scene. The officers yelled at Hunter to stop multiple times, but he continued to run. During the chase, Hunter reached towards his pocket several times as if he were trying to reach into it. For a brief period of time, Hunter was out of eye sight of all officers while in between houses and in backyards. When police officers eventually apprehended Hunter, the pocket that had been holding the heavy object was turned inside out and empty. Despite Hunter's refusal to give officers his hands, officers eventually handcuffed him, placing him under arrest. They searched his pockets and found a bandana, a condom, and a live .380 round.

         The police set up a perimeter and called K-9 units to respond to the scene to search for a gun. Contemporaneously, the officers heard a shots-fired call come out over the radio referencing the shooting of Williams and Cooper. A K-9 officer located a .380 handgun along a fence line in the backyard of a house in the area where officers had lost sight of Hunter. It was not buried, and officers did not need to move anything to see it, but it was located in an area where plants and weeds were overgrown.

         Hunter was charged with multiple crimes in relation to the above described events. These charges were initially brought against him in juvenile court. The juvenile court, however, transferred his case to circuit court for Hunter to be tried as an adult pursuant to KRS[1] 635.020(4). He was subsequently indicted by a Jefferson County grand jury on the charges of murder, criminal attempt to murder, assault in the first degree, fleeing or evading police in the first degree, tampering with physical evidence, and possession of a handgun by a minor. At a trial by jury, Hunter was found guilty of murder, assault in the first degree, tampering with physical evidence, fleeing or evading police in the second degree, and possession of a handgun by a minor. Hunter appeals to this Court alleging the following errors: (1) The trial court erred by not declaring KRS 635.020(4) unconstitutional; (2) The trial court erred by denying Hunter's motion to suppress the gun and live round as fruits of an illegal seizure and search; (3) The jury returned an inconsistent verdict; and (4) The trial court erred in denying Hunter's motions for directed verdict on the tampering with physical evidence and fleeing or evading police charges. We will discuss each of these arguments in turn and provide additional facts as needed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Constitutionality of KRS 635.020(4)

         Hunter argues that the trial court erred in failing to find KRS 635.020(4) unconstitutional. KRS 635.020(4) states as follows:

Any other provision of KRS Chapters 610 to 645 to the contrary notwithstanding, if a child charged with a felony in which a firearm, whether functional or not, was used in the commission of the offense had attained the age of fourteen (14) years at the time of the commission of the alleged offense, he shall be transferred to the Circuit Court for trial as an adult if, following a preliminary hearing, the District Court finds probable cause to believe that the child committed a felony, that a firearm was used in the commission of that felony, and that the child was fourteen (14) years of age or older at the time of the commission of the alleged felony. If convicted in the Circuit Court, he shall be subject to the same penalties as an adult offender, except that until he reaches the age of eighteen (18) years, he shall be confined in a facility or program for juveniles or for youthful offenders, unless the provisions of KRS 635.025 apply or unless he is released pursuant to expiration of sentence or parole, and at age eighteen (18) he shall be returned to the sentencing Circuit Court for proceedings consistent with KRS 640.030(2).

         Hunter first argues that KRS 635.020(4) is unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey which held that "[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000). Hunter argues that the transfer of a juvenile to circuit court to be tried as an adult increases the penalties the juvenile faces beyond the maximum sentence he would face under the juvenile code, and that transfer is based upon judge-found facts that are never submitted to a jury, in violation of Apprendi.

         This Court, however, has previously found these arguments to be unpersuasive. In Caldwell v. Commonwealth we held that Apprendi did not apply to juvenile transfer proceedings. 133 S.W.3d 445, 453 (Ky. 2004), overruled on other grounds by Hall v. Commonwealth, 551 S.W.3d 7 (Ky. 2018). We explained,

A juvenile transfer proceeding does not involve sentencing or a determination of guilt or innocence. The decision to transfer a juvenile to circuit court involves the determination of which system is appropriate for a juvenile defendant. We recognize that a juvenile transferred to circuit court and tried as an adult offender will be exposed to the statutory maximum sentence on the applicable criminal statute, which in most cases will exceed the statutory maximum disposition in the juvenile system.

Id. Hunter urges us to revisit this holding in light of the United States Supreme Court's subsequent cases interpreting Apprendi, as well as its cases discussing youthful offender sentencing. Having found no persuasive reason to stray from our prior precedent, we decline to do so. Pursuant to Caldwell, Apprendi does not render KRS 635.020(4) unconstitutional.

         Hunter next argues that KRS 635.020(4) violates substantive due process and equal protection rights under both the United States Constitution and the Kentucky Constitution. Substantive due process "is based on the idea that some rights are so fundamental that the government must have an exceedingly important reason to regulate them, if at all, such as the right to free speech or to vote." Miller v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 296 S.W.3d 392, 397 (Ky. 2009). Regarding equal protection rights, unless a more specific provisions of our state constitution applies, "an equal protection analysis requires strict scrutiny of legislative classification only when the classification impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class." Commonwealth v. Howard, 969 S.W.2d 700, 703 (Ky. 1998) (citing Massachusetts Bd. Of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 312 (1976)).

         This Court has previously addressed all of these same arguments in Caldwell when we held explicitly, "KRS 635.020(4) does not violate the equal protection rights of Caldwell under our state or federal constitutions. Juveniles are not members of a suspect class and there is no constitutional right to be treated as a juvenile." 133 S.W.3d at 453. Therefore, we found that

[t]he statutory classification must then be considered under the rational basis test. Where, as here, the act of the legislature does not contain a suspect classification and does not impinge on a fundamental right, the burden is on the party claiming a violation of equal protection to establish that the statutory distinction is without a rational basis.

Id. We then went on to hold:

There is an obvious legitimate governmental interest in curtailing violent crimes by juveniles and protecting the public from harm. The decision of the legislature to further that interest by transferring certain juveniles to circuit court to be tried as adults after a finding of probable cause by the district judge is reasonably related to the pursuit of that legitimate goal. There is a rational basis for the statutory classification. It does not violate either the state or federal equal protection clauses. KRS 635.020(4) is constitutional.


         Despite Caldwell, which is directly on point, Hunter implores this Court to hold that KRS 635.020(4) infringes on multiple fundamental rights and that it fails under even a rational basis test. Hunter cites to two publications by the United States Department of Justice[2] to support his argument that mandatory transfer laws are ineffective and therefore not rational. He also points to United States Supreme Court precedent such as Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) for its proposition that judges must consider the unique characteristics of youth in making their dispositional decisions.

         Under a rational basis test, "the law must be upheld against an equal protection challenge if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification." Howard, 969 S.W.2d at 703. The statute is presumed to be constitutional, and the challenger of the statute has the burden to prove it is unconstitutional. Id. "So long as the statute's generalization is rationally related to the achievement of a legitimate purpose[, ] the statute is constitutional. A state does not violate the equal protection clause merely because the classifications made by the statutes are imperfect." Id. at 703-04 (internal citations omitted).

         In discussing KRS 635.020(4), this Court has previously stated,

The legislature has recognized the seriousness of juvenile crimes of violence, especially those related to gang activity. The risk to the public from juveniles, who are thought to be less capable of good judgment, using firearms to settle disputes is even more frightening than adults doing so, and is likewise properly controlled by governmental action.

K.R. v. Commonwealth, 360 S.W.3d 179, 187 (Ky. 2012). Today we reaffirm our holding in Caldwell and again hold that KRS 635.020(4) does not violate either the ...

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