The decision of whether to grant probation in a criminal case in Tennessee where the defendant is eligible for it is discretionary with the trial court. In the recent case of State v. Sihapanya, W2012-00716-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 11-8-2013), the Court of Criminal Appeals in a split decision reversed the trial court’s decision to deny probation to a defendant who pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving a death.
In the Sihapanya case, the twenty-year old defendant had driven from Memphis to Nashville to drink beer, eat pizza, and watch television with friends. Around 2:00 a.m., he began driving back to Memphis. Around 6:30 a.m. on Interstate 40, the defendant was having trouble staying awake. His vehicle struck the rear of the victim’s vehicle, causing the victim’s vehicle to run off the road into the median and flip multiple times. Though noticing he had struck another vehicle, the defendant continued on his way to Memphis. He was arrested shortly after the crash, based on witness descriptions of his vehicle.
The victim, who was a nurse and mother on her way to work that morning, died as a result of her injuries.
The defendant had alcohol in his blood and had been drinking beer while in Nashville, but he was not charged with DUI or vehicular homicide. He had no previous criminal history but did plead guilty to a speeding offense five months after the crash.
At a sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed a two year sentence and denied the defendant’s request for judicial diversion and for probation. On appeal the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the length of the sentence and the denial of judicial diversion. In affirming the denial of diversion, the Court specifically found the subsequent speeding violation notable, as the defendant continued to engage in dangerous driving habits within just months of having struck and killed another driver on the Interstate.
However, the Court of Criminal Appeals panel split on the issue of probation, with the majority finding the trial court abused its discretion in denying probation. The majority disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the victim may have survived had the defendant not left the scene. They further concluded the trial court placed too much weight on the fact that a death occurred, as that was an element of the offense and the legislature has determined the offense to be probation eligible. The dissent argued the trial court was within its discretion in denying probation due to the circumstances of the offense including the defendant’s irresponsible behavior in choosing to drive home at 2:30 a.m. after illegally consuming alcohol and not having slept since the night before.
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