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Justices abandon 'mere possession' rule

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The Indiana Supreme Court's decision Thursday abandoned the "mere possession rule" when it comes to convictions of theft and receiving stolen property and restored the state's original view that the possession of recently stolen property should be considered with other evidence in the case.

Since Bolton v. State, 254 Ind. 648, 261 N.E.2d 841 (1970), the Supreme Court's jurisprudence "took a noticeable turn" and caselaw decided after Bolton adhered to some variation of the rule that unexplained possession of recently stolen property standing alone is sufficient to support a guilty verdict for theft, called the mere possession rule, wrote Justice Robert Rucker. However, in Thursday's case, Kail Fortson v. State of Indiana, No. 82S04-0811-CR-592, the justices unanimously decided to revert to what the jurisdiction had previously held before Bolton: the mere unexplained possession of recently stolen property standing alone doesn't automatically support a conviction of theft.

"In essence, the fact of possession and all the surrounding evidence about the possession must be assessed to determine whether any rational juror could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," wrote Justice Rucker, noting this also applies to the rule concerning the charge of receiving stolen property.

Kail Fortson was driving a truck police stopped because they knew it had been reported stolen just a few hours early. Fortson was charged and convicted of receiving stolen property. Fortson appealed his conviction challenging the evidence and argued the state hadn't proved he had knowledge the truck was stolen. The Indiana Court of Appeals split and reversed Fortson's conviction.

The high court agreed with the majority's reasoning for overturning Fortson's conviction: there was no evidence Fortson attempted to conceal the truck from the officers or physically resist arrest, nor did he provide evasive answers. The state could only prove he was in possession of the recently stolen property but not that he knew the truck was stolen.

"And with our holding today, the same conclusion would obtain had Fortson been charged with theft as opposed to receiving stolen property," wrote the justice.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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