ILNews

Court reverses auto theft conviction

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a conviction of auto theft and remanded the case to the trial court, citing insufficient evidence to prove the defendant had exclusive possession of the vehicle from the time of the theft until police saw him in the stolen car.

In Steven Shelby v. State of Indiana, 49A05-0704-CR-202, Shelby appealed his conviction and sentence of auto theft, a Class D felony, and the trial court's finding him to be a habitual offender.

On Nov. 7,2006, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Bennett saw two people sitting in a Buick in a parking lot. The Buick was similar to one that was reported stolen Oct. 23, 2006. Bennett followed the car to a house, where the people in it parked and walked up the street. Bennett stopped them - Shelby was one of the people - and asked why they were leaving their car at the house. Shelby replied it was not his car, he didn't drive it, and gave the officer his learner's permit.

Police discovered the car was stolen and arrested Shelby. Police noticed the steering column was broken, and found a butter knife on the car's floorboard, but no keys or other items that could be used to start the car were found on Shelby. After reading Shelby his Miranda rights, he admitted to driving the vehicle.

During trial, the court refused defense counsel jury instructions that when a considerable amount of time has passed from the date of the theft and an arrest, something needs to demonstrate the accused has had exclusive possession of the stolen item for the entire time. The court also refused defense jury instructions indicating unexplained possession of stolen property may be sufficient to support an auto theft conviction, but that is only permitted if the property is recently stolen.

The jury found Shelby guilty of auto theft; he later pleaded guilty to the habitual offender allegation and was sentenced to consecutive sentences of 545 days for auto theft and 1,285 days on the habitual offender charge. Shelby appealed, challenging the sufficiency of evidence to support his conviction on the auto theft charge.

In an opinion authored by Judge Cale Bradford, the Court of Appeals determined there was not sufficient evidence to convict Shelby. When there is considerable time between the actual theft and an arrest, there must be something that shows the defendant had exclusive possession of the property during that time period, citing Muse v. State, 419 N.E.2d at 1304.

There was a 15-day gap between the theft and Shelby's possession of the car, and his possession would not be characterized as recent. His conviction cannot be upheld merely because he possessed or exercised control of the car, wrote Judge Bradford. The state did not show evidence that suggested Shelby had exclusive possession of the car from the time it was stolen until he was arrested, the court found. Also, there was no evidence on Shelby of keys or other items that would be used to start the vehicle, only the butter knife on the car's floorboard. No connection between Shelby and the knife was ever established.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to vacate Shelby's conviction for auto theft and the resulting habitual offender finding.
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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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