Legal Matters

On Second Thought State supreme court rules in favor of Acadiana man imprisoned on illegal sentence.

by Walter Pierce

Sean Holloway can’t get the eight months back. That’s the amount of time the Supreme Court of Louisiana has ruled he spent in jail over and above what he should have for a 2015 vehicular homicide plea and conviction.

Photo courtesy LPCC

Holloway’s case is a study in the slow-grinding wheels of justice. Nineteen years old in 2007 when involved as the driver in an accident that killed a friend, Holloway had a blood alcohol level of .051 — below the legal adult limit but above the limit for underage drivers. He pleaded guilty to the charge in 2014, more than six years after the crash, following numerous continuances, delays and, at one point, the case being dropped by then-District Attorney Mike Harson’s office.

However, in 2012, between the time of the crash that killed his friend, Shawn Lancon, and his guilty plea, state law was changed as it pertains to applying “crime of violence” to criminal offenses. Drunk driving was one of them.

Holloway was sentenced on May 20, 2014, to four years imprisonment at hard labor, three of which were to be served “without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.” Holloway was further sentenced to an additional year of home incarceration. And off he went to prison.

Eight months later, Shawn Lancon’s mother got a notification that Holloway was set to be released from prison for good behavior. She was incensed and urged prosecutors to intervene. They did, asking District Judge Marilyn Castle in Lafayette to amend the sentence to a crime of violence, which requires the defendant serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. In February 2015, in a case that was widely reported by local media, Castle did just that. Holloway remained behind bars as his attorneys appealed. The case bounced up to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal and back, finally landing at the Louisiana Supreme Court. By the time SCOLA’S justices got their hands on the case, Holloway had served the time Castle re-sentenced him to and was free.

On Oct. 19, SCOLA released its opinion: “...we find that Art. 890.1, effective May 17, 2012, applies by its plain language ‘upon conviction, in sentencing the offender’ and therefore that version of the article, rather than the former article pertaining to designation of crimes of violence, applied when Holloway was convicted and sentenced in 2014. Therefore, the ultimate judgment of the court of appeal, which vacated the district court’s January 29, 2015 designation of Holloway’s conviction as a crime of violence, is affirmed.”

In a footnote to the ruling, the state’s high court further defined its reasoning: “We note that the district court did not, at the time of sentencing, find that the offense committed by Holloway constituted a crime of violence. The district court imposed a sentence within the range provided in the penalty provision.

The state did not object to or appeal the sentence and did not seek to appeal it. There is no mechanism provided in the Code of Criminal Procedure by which the state can, more than eight months after a sentence that is legal in all respects is imposed and made executory, return to the district court to seek what is essentially a modification of the sentence.”

Lafayette attorneys Barry Sallinger and Allyson Prejean, who represented Holloway, say the case is the first of its kind in Louisiana dealing with reconsideration of a sentence after it’s already been imposed. Unfortunately, the high court’s decision came too late for Sean Holloway.

“The only thing that could be hoped for is that sentencing judges in the future would be adherent to the rules of criminal procedure and not allow prosecutors to try to improperly punish one by seeking to impose an illegal sentence,” Sallinger tells ABiz.

We reached out to the Holloway family for comment for this story but got no response.

Sallinger says Holloway has little legal recourse in terms of civil action against the D.A.’s office or judge. The latter is protected broadly by judicial immunity.

“However, there are U.S. Supreme Court and federal appellate and district court cases which stand for the proposition that judicial immunity is lost when a judge lacks jurisdiction,” Sallinger notes. “Under the circumstances, one could argue here that the trial court had no jurisdiction since the time for actions capable of being employed by the court lapsed many months prior to the filing of the motion by the state.”

In order to successfully press a civil action against the prosecution, Sallinger says, Holloway would have to prove malice — not such a tall order, says Sallinger:

“The issue here would be whether it could be proven that the prosecution had filed its motion and perpetuated its two appeals with enmity as motivation. That is not so difficult a bridge to cross.”