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Judges reverse theft conviction

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a defendant's conviction of theft because the trial court failed to instruct the jury on conversion as a lesser-included offense of theft.

In Roger L. Morris v. State of Indiana, No. 02A03-0905-CR-210, the trial judge declined Roger Morris' request for an instruction on conversion partly because of a Court of Appeals case in which the appellate court found theft and conversion offenses to appear to be one and the same from a practical standpoint, but that there was a difference in the mens rea required. Morris was convicted of Class D felony theft and found to be a habitual offender.

The appellate court in the instant case found Morris' case illustrated the "elusive difference" between theft and conversion as laid out by the legislature. Department store security saw Morris stuffing merchandise into a black bag. He was recognized because he had previously shoplifted from the store. When approached by security, he dropped the bag and ran out of the store. He was caught by the employees and only had a small knife and a toothbrush on him.

It's clear Morris exerted unauthorized control over the store's items because he tried to hide the fact he was putting them in the bag and had no way to pay for them, which would support a conversion conviction. But the evidence disputes whether Morris intended to deprive the store of the use and value of the clothing for any period of time, which is needed to convict him of theft, wrote Judge Terry Crone.

In light of Morris' seemingly reckless actions and the fact he only had the toothbrush and small knife on him, a reasonable jury may find him guilty of conversion instead of theft.

Even viewing theft and conversion as one and the same crime, the law supports giving the lesser included offense instruction, the judge continued. If the two crimes can be proven by identical elements, but carry different sentencing ranges, then prosecutors would be likely to pursue the Class D felony charge to get the longer sentence for a theft conviction. 

"In sum, if criminal conversion as a class A misdemeanor and theft as a class D felony are indeed two different crimes as outlined by our legislature, then the trial court abused its discretion by failing to instruct the jury as to the lesser-included offense of conversion," wrote Judge Crone. "If the elements of conversion and theft have no practical difference, then the rule of lenity and/or the proportionality clause of the U.S. Constitution would entitle Morris to have the jury instructed on both crimes."

Judge Nancy Vaidik concurred in result. The judges remanded the case for retrial.

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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