ANALYSIS OF NOVEMBER 22, 2023 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted November 22, 2023) Opinion day comes 24 hours early this week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. The justices hand us a single decision: Commonwealth v. Puckett resolves a question about restitution in a criminal case.
Puckett was the assailant in an especially vicious knife attack. His victim survived, but incurred six figures in medical bills. Because the victim was indigent, Medicaid paid about 20% of the bill and the hospital wrote off the rest.
At Puckett’s sentencing, the circuit court awarded restitution to the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services in the amount it had paid. Puckett appealed, contending that the victim himself was the only proper payee of a restitution award. And because the victim never had to pay anything, he hadn’t “incurred” any expenses that could be the subject of a restitution award.
The Court of Appeals liked that line of reasoning and reversed the restitution award. It noted that DMAS wasn’t a victim of the attack, so it wasn’t a proper party to receive restitution.
In the cosmic scheme of things — specifically, the state budget — $22,000 isn’t a lot of money; but the Commonwealth appealed anyway. A writ panel decided that the issue was worth resolving, and the parties argued the case to the full Supreme Court in the September session.
Today the court reverses the CAV’s judgment and reinstates the restitution award. It concludes that the restitution statute does contemplate a situation like this. Regardless of whether the victim ultimately had to pay the medical bills, he clearly incurred them, and that’s enough to empower a circuit court to require restitution to the entity that ultimately laid out the money.
Justice Kelsey authors today’s opinion for a unanimous court. Justice Russell sits this one out; my best guess why is that he was on the Court of Appeals when this case made its way through that court.