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Justice argues majority opinion does not give clear guidance going forward

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The Indiana Supreme Court by a vote of 3-2 upheld a man’s Class B misdemeanor public intoxication conviction, with the dissenting justices concerned that the majority opinion “muddies the judicial water.”

Tin Thang was arrested in December 2012 on suspicion of public intox after an officer observed in him a gas station smelling of alcohol with bloodshot eyes. A car was in the station lot that was not there when the officer entered the gas station, and inside was only Thang, the officer and the attendant. The keys to the car were found on Thang and the car belonged to him.

Thang does not dispute that he was intoxicated in a public place, but he argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he endangered himself or anyone else. The justices granted transfer to address whether the proof of the endangerment element outlined in the statute for Class B misdemeanor public intox can be established by reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence. The justices answered that in the affirmative.

The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Brent Dickson, rejected Thang’s argument that Moore v. State, 634 N.E. 2d 825 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994), prohibits a fact-finder from drawing an inference from circumstantial evidence that a defendant was not on a public street.

“In the present case, the undisputed evidence established the sudden presence of the defendant and his vehicle at a gas station, his intoxication, his possession of the car keys, and the absence of any other persons, thus necessitating removal of the car by towing. From these facts, it is a reasonable inference that the defendant had arrived at the gas station by driving his automobile on the public streets while intoxicated, thereby endangering his or another person’s life,” Dickson wrote in Tin Thang v. State of Indiana, 49S04-1402-CR-72.  

In his dissent, Justice Steven David agreed that reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence could lead a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Thang drove his car to the gas station on a public street.

“But because I believe the relevant criminal statute requires the State to prove more than just this, and because I feel that it failed to do so, I cannot join the majority,” he wrote, keying in the words “thereby endangering his or another person’s life” written in I.C. 7.1-5-1-3(a). Justice Robert Rucker joined David’s dissent.

Thang arrived at the gas station somehow, but did he drive safely and obey the traffic laws, David questioned, or did he swerve across a fog line or nearly drive into a telephone pole?

“The decision today effectively vitiates the endangerment element from the public intoxication statute under these circumstances, as the State need no longer present any evidence beyond the fact of the defendant’s intoxicated driving of a vehicle. Thang v. State will be the guidepost that affirms all such convictions on sufficient review.”
 

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