In a rare and harshly worded ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday that a lower court judge erred in sentencing a particularly violent rapist to probation rather than the recommended 12 years in prison.
Justice David Lillehaug opened his 21-page opinion by saying that district courts have a great deal of discretion in sentencing. And the state high court rarely holds that it has been abused, he said.
"But rarely is not never," he continued. "This is such a rare case."
The state Supreme Court vacated the sentence of 30 years' supervised probation given to Jose Arriaga Soto Jr. Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Remick now must conduct additional fact-finding on whether the recommended 12-year sentence should be imposed or if a departure from the guidelines is justified.
Soto was 37 when he beat and raped a woman for two hours after drinking all night in an East Grand Forks apartment in 2012. Soto pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
A co-defendant who was involved in the rape to a lesser degree than Soto received 12 years in prison, the opinion noted in its many criticisms of the ruling.
A presentencing report said Soto had minimized his actions without taking responsibility and blamed the victim. At his sentencing, he apologized to her. The opinion notes, in a tempered outrage, the horrors of the assault for the victim:
"Soto committed a forcible and violent assault against an intoxicated and thus particularly vulnerable person. The assault lasted approximately 2 hours and the victim was repeatedly subjected to multiple penetrations by two men. Soto slapped the victim's face, choked her, and caused several injuries."
The opinion noted the Legislature and the Sentencing Guidelines Commission have determined a sentence of 12 years in prison is "presumed to be appropriate" for someone with Soto's criminal history who commits such a rape.
The victim's vulnerability, the multiple forms of penetration and other particular cruelty that may be involved suggests that an upward departure on the case could have been appropriate, the opinion says.
Remick said it was the most difficult case "of this nature" that he had considered. He sentenced Soto to 12 years in prison, but he then stayed the sentence, saying the rapist was amenable to probation and a proper candidate for outpatient treatment.
As the ruling came down Wednesday, Soto was in jail in Polk County awaiting a probation violation hearing after being terminated from a sex offender treatment program. Kathryn Lockwood, one of his attorneys, said there could be many reasons his participation ended, such as missed appointments.
Lockwood also said she believes the lower court acted well within its discretion in placing Soto on probation and doesn't agree with the Supreme Court ruling.
The opinion also noted that Soto's co-defendant, Ismael Hernandez, was "arguably less culpable than Soto — he left the room shortly after the sexual assault began," but he went to prison for the presumptive sentence of 12 years.
Three of the seven justices dissented from Lillehaug's opinion. Alan Page wrote that the district court relied on factors generally recognized by the higher court as potentially relevant considerations in determining whether probation was appropriate for Soto.
"While another [district] court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the 'rare case' warranting our intervention," wrote Page, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and G. Barry Anderson.
Last year, the state Court of Appeals reversed Soto's sentence and instructed the district court to impose the 12-year term.
Steve Simon, emeritus professor of clinical education at the University of Minnesota Law School, called the ruling very unusual.
"Abuse of discretion is seldom, seldom used to overturn a lower court decision," Simon said. "Judges have a tremendous amount of discretion. But the reasons [cited by Remick] in this case don't make any sense."
Even though probation wasn't recommended in Soto's pre-sentence report by a probation officer or an evaluator from a sex offender treatment program, Remick placed him on supervised probation for 30 years. The judge emphasized Soto's age, lack of serious criminal record and family support. He also said the crime was primarily caused by alcohol and that Soto's attitude in court was largely respectful and that "this particular type of event seems largely out of character."
Lillehaug's opinion challenged all the factors Remick listed for Soto's amenability to probation, finding that he drew false or inappropriate conclusions in considering them. He said the judge should have argued that Soto was "particularly" amendable, the legal standard used to justify the departure of staying a presumptive sentence.
Star Tribune staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report.