The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that the 2017 amendment to the probation eligibility statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-35-303, prohibits defendants who are convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication from receiving any form of probation.
In August 2020, Ebony Robinson struck two minors with her car in a Nashville neighborhood while she was intoxicated. One of the victims survived, but the other victim passed away that evening at a local hospital. A grand jury indicted Ms.
Robinson, charging her with vehicular homicide by intoxication, aggravated assault, resisting arrest and driving without a license. She pleaded guilty to all charges without an agreement as to the sentence.
After a sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced Ms. Robinson to 10 years for vehicular homicide, four years for aggravated assault, six months for resisting arrest and six months for driving without a license. The State argued that, under the 2017 amendment to the probation eligibility statute, Ms. Robinson was not eligible for probation because she had pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by intoxication. However, the trial court found that even though the probation eligibility statute says criminal defendants convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication are ineligible for probation, Ms. Robinson was eligible for split and periodic confinement. Ms. Robinson had been incarcerated while awaiting trial and sentencing. The trial court placed Ms. Robinson on probation for the felony offenses and ordered the sentences to run concurrently. She was also required, for three years, to serve one week in jail during each child’s birthday as well as the week of Christmas.
The State appealed, challenging Ms. Robinson’s sentence for vehicular homicide by intoxication. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of probation and ordered Ms. Robinson to serve her sentence, concluding that “a defendant who is convicted of vehicular homicide by intoxication is not eligible for release on any form of probation, whether it be periodic confinement or split confinement.”
The Supreme Court granted Ms. Robinson’s application for permission to appeal. The Court reviewed the language of the vehicular homicide by intoxication statute, Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-213, and the probation eligibility statute to interpret them together. The vehicular homicide by intoxication statute notably carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 48 consecutive hours of incarceration. The statute then references the probation eligibility statute, providing that such defendants “shall not be eligible for release from confinement on probation pursuant to § 40-35-303 until the person has served the entire 48-hour minimum mandatory sentence.” The 2017 amendment to the probation eligibility statute lists vehicular homicide by intoxication as a crime for which “no defendant shall be eligible for probation.”
The Supreme Court determined that the plain language of the probation eligibility statute prohibits defendants convicted of the subject crime from receiving any form of probation, including probationary sentences of split or periodic confinement. According to the Court, Ms. Robinson’s attempt to read the word “full” into the statute in arguing that it only prohibits “full probation,” improperly alters the plain meaning of the statute. The Court concluded that the legislature, by cross-referencing the probation statute, showed it intended the vehicular homicide by intoxication statute to be subject to all of the limitations and conditions in the probation eligibility statute. As a result, the Court determined that the two statutes can be reasonably read together without conflict. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals and ordered Ms. Robinson’s sentence for vehicular homicide by intoxication to be served in confinement.
To read the unanimous opinion in State v. Ebony Robinson, authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.