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Court reverses decision denying trial counsel appointment

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has determined a Jay Superior judge didn’t look at a defendant’s “total financial picture” when assessing his need for a court-appointed attorney. It has ordered a new indigency evaluation and trial for the misdemeanor battery charge.

A three-judge panel ruled today in Zachariah D. Reese v. State of Indiana, No. 38A05-1104-CR-171, reversing and remanding the case from Jay Superior Judge Max C. Ludy Jr.

Reese had been charged in 2010 with battery resulting in bodily injury, and at an initial hearing the 25-year-old requested the court appoint an attorney to represent him. He told the judge about his $7.25 an hour job at a fast food restaurant and how he had little money after his rent, bills, and necessary expenses. The judge denied his request for court-appointed counsel after determining Reese wasn’t “totally without funds in order to hire an attorney” and that he should have some money left over each week to put toward a lawyer.

Four months later, Reese renewed his request and told the court that he had taken a new higher-paying job but had been laid off and was without any income. Reese said he wasn’t able to save any money to hire an attorney and that he wasn’t going to immediately receive any tax refund money because he didn’t file electronically. The court continued the bench trial for the end of March and ordered that Reese use some of the $1,500 tax refund he expected to put toward an attorney.

Reese didn’t have an attorney at the trial on March 30, and the court found him guilty of battery and sentenced him to one year, with all but 90 days suspended for probation. The judge then conducted an indigency hearing for appeal, and after listening to testimony found Reese was indigent and appointed appellate counsel.

Looking at Reese’s situation and how the court inquired about his finances at all the hearings, the appellate court found the judge should have done a more thorough job in assessing indigency. Specifically, the trial court didn’t inquire in February about the bills Reese had to pay and instead focused on the fact that Reese hadn’t saved any money since the initial hearing.

The court relied on Redmond v. State, 518 N.E. 2d 1095, 1095 (Ind. 1988) and Hall v. State, 826 N.E.2d 99, 105 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005), dealing with indigency and trial court discretion in appointing counsel.

“While we are reluctant to override a trial court’s determination of a criminal defendant’s indigency, it is apparent from the record that Reese lacked the resources to employ an attorney,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the panel, which included Judges John Baker and James Kirsch. “In short, ordering Reese to retain private counsel in his circumstances would indeed result in a substantial financial hardship. Based upon the record and Reese’s ‘total financial picture,’ we conclude that the trial court erred in refusing to appoint trial counsel to represent him.”


 

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