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Appeals court rules on Ohio River phone-stalking case

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has reaffirmed its standing that prosecutors can’t elevate a misdemeanor crime to a felony if the defendant didn’t know the victim worked in law enforcement.

But in a three-judge panel’s ruling today in Keith Eberle v. State of Indiana, No. 58A01-1003-CR-105, the trial judge’s error in allowing that elevation doesn’t even matter because the conviction was merged into a felony stalking charge the appellate court says was sufficiently supported by evidence.

The case revolves around a Rising Sun woman, V.L., who repeatedly received lewd photos and phone calls on her cell phone over the course of a few weeks in 2008, while in the Ohio River areas of Ohio and Dearborn counties and also across the water in Boone County, Kentucky. Though she worked as an Ohio County jail matron and also dated a sheriff’s deputy in that county, the harassment didn’t appear to be tied to her public duties. Police tracked the phone calls to Dearborn County resident Keith Eberle and charged him with multiple intimidation and harassment counts, then later added two counts of felony stalking against him.

After a three-day trial in September 2009, a jury found him guilty on all charges and Eberle received an eight-year sentence in the Department of Correction. Ohio Circuit Judge James D. Humphrey concluded that the intimidation and harassment counts were lesser-included offenses of stalking and merged them for sentencing purposes, but didn’t vacate those convictions and entered judgments on all of the counts – including one of the merged intimidation charges that had been elevated from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony because V.L. was a law enforcement official.

On appeal, Eberle challenged whether Ohio County was a proper venue, the trial court’s refusal of proposed venue instructions, evidence sufficiency on his convictions, and whether the trial court’s failure to vacate the lesser-included offenses after merging them for sentencing purposes violated Indiana’s prohibition against double jeopardy.

Eberle won on two points, but those aspects ultimately do not change the result and are mostly harmless in the grand scheme of the case, according to the appellate court’s decision. The appellate court found the venue was correct because that’s where the victim lived, and also because state statute allows for the trial to happen anywhere along the border of where the offense may have happened – since electronic communications were at play in the area along the Ohio River, the court found any of those three counties would have been a proper venue.

The judges also determined that the state provided sufficient evidence to support the stalking charge, but did note the judge erred in not vacating the prior lesser-included felonies and ordered Judge Humphreys to do that on remand. But the appeals court also noted that had it not been merged or dismissed on the double jeopardy point, it wouldn’t have been possible to enhance the intimidation count from a misdemeanor to a felony. The rationale is that Eberle didn’t know V.L. was a county jail matron, and so the enhancement statute couldn’t be used based on past caselaw.

“The purpose… for providing increased penalties for crimes when committed against a public official, such as a police officer, is to afford a greater degree of protection to persons who might be subjected to special risks because they are performing public duties,” the court wrote, citing a 2009 decision of Masotto v. State, 907 N.E.2d 1083, 1085. “Public policy requires that law enforcement officials who are subject to the greater threats than the ordinary citizen be given additional protection, but only when the increased risks result from actions involving the execution of their official duties.”

Judge Elaine Brown concurred in result, issuing a separate opinion that says she would have held that any error in the Ohio County venue finding on harassment and intimidation is harmless given that the panel’s remanding with instructions to vacate Eberle’s convictions on double jeopardy grounds.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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