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Justices divided on firearm 'use' sentencing

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A divided Indiana Supreme Court has held that state statute dictates that the use of a firearm can be the grounds for a sentence enhancement that doesn’t constitute a double jeopardy violation.

In its eight-page decision today in Joshua G. Nicoson v. State of Indiana , No. 32S04-1003-CR-150, three of the justices held that a five-year sentence enhancement on a Hendricks County case is consistent with state statutes and the prohibition against double jeopardy.

The case involves a 27-year old man who confronted a friend’s boyfriend with a gun to help her end a relationship with him. The 17-year old boyfriend and three others arrived in a car and saw Nicoson pointing a gun in the air.

Nicoson went to a gas station and pointed a gun in the air, firing a warning shot, then held the 17-year old boyfriend and a passenger. He also pointed the gun at the boyfriend and a passenger, ordered the people at gunpoint to lie on the ground, and then fired at the car when they escaped. After a bench trial, the court found Nicoson guilty on two Class B felony counts of confinement with a deadly weapon and other felony counts of pointing a firearm. The judge added five years to one of the confinement convictions for the use of the firearm during the offense – specifically pointing out how Nicoson had held the gun to the boyfriend’s head while he was facedown on the ground.

The Court of Appeals tackled this issue of first impression in January, but came out divided in its holding that someone armed with a deadly weapon is the basis for a confinement enhancement associated with that specific Class B felony, and that the additional five-year enhancement was a separate issue going to the punishment for a person’s actual use of the deadly weapon.

A majority of the justices agreed, analyzing Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-11 that allows a judge to enhance a person's sentence to an additional fixed term of five years if the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the person "used" a firearm in the commission of the offense.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote the majority opinion, citing caselaw that finds the double jeopardy constitutional principle is aimed at multiple convictions while multiple sentencing enhancements turn on statutory interpretation. Since this five-year enhancement is not part of the criminal confinement provisions that Nicoson was charged with but falls under the penalty codes within state statute, it doesn’t interfere, the chief justice wrote.

“In effect, Nicoson is contending that the State proved too much too soon,” he wrote. “He had to mean that the legislative design seeks to impose greater penalty on a perpetuator who brings a gun to the scene of the crime and eventually pulls it out and aims it, but a lesser penalty for a perpetuator who discharges the weapon as a warning, aims it at other human beings, and brandishes it throughout the whole encounter. It cannot be so. The legislative direction in the language of the statutes is explicit. The enumeration of criminal confinement in the ‘firearm use statute’ is authorization by the General Assembly for this type of enhancement.”

Justices Steven David and Brent Dickson joined the chief justice in the majority, but Justices Robert Rucker and Frank Sullivan dissented. Though they agreed with the majority’s general observation about conviction versus penalty analysis, they determined that the facts here showed no distinction between Nicoson’s being “armed” and his “use” of the firearm. That warrants a reversal and remand to the trial court, they wrote.

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  • Multiple Enhancements
    I believe that the issue here is that Nicoson was convicted of Criminal Confinement with a Deadly Weapon and then had a weapons ehancement added on. Criminal Confinement is a D felony which is enhanced to a B felony when a firearm is used. To add a further enhancement to an already enhanced sentence is blatantly unconstitutional under US Law. In Indiana, however, the General Assembly allows this double enhancement. Hopefully the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission will retract this error. This is clearly double sentencing and therefore double jeopardy.
  • Incorrect
    The facts about Joshua Nicoson's case are not recorded accurately here. The five men came to Joshua's home to confront him over an earlier phone call -- Josh did not fire a gun at a gas station, as reported here. He was on his own property. Further, none of the victims ever testified that Josh pointed a gun at his head, only the trial judge made that declaration. Unfortunately, this is not a case of shoddy reporting by this website -- all of these inaccuracies were presented in the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court cases. It's too bad that the true facts of the case never had the chance to come out.

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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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