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COA: Church not a 'youth program center'

May 21, 2009

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a man's Class A felony conviction of possession of cocaine, finding he wasn't within 1,000 feet of a "youth program center" because the building is a church running mostly faith-based programs. It's an issue of first impression for Indiana courts.

In Walker Whatley v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0809-CR-808, Walker Whatley argued that Robinson Community Church, which was within 1,000 feet of where he was arrested, isn't considered a youth program center for purposes of Indiana Code Section 35-48-4-6. He claimed the criminal statute and statute defining youth program center are unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. The criminal statute at issue here doesn't punish possession with 1,000 feet of a church.

The issue of felony enhancement for a violation of a "drug free zone" defined as a youth program center hasn't been the subject of an Indiana decision yet, wrote Senior Judge Patrick Sullivan.

Whatley argued because the church bears no identifier to signify it as a "youth program center," the statute provides no basis for individuals to know they are within 1,000 feet of one. He also argued the Indiana statutory scheme relative to youth program centers is fatally flawed because no bright-line rule is presented that would put a person of ordinary intelligence on notice that a person is within 1,000 feet of an unmarked youth program center. But according to Polk v. State, 683 N.E.2d 567 (Ind. 1997), such knowledge or notice isn't required for constitutionality, wrote Senior Judge Sullivan.

Examining cases from other jurisdictions, the appellate court unanimously decided Robinson Community Church was and remains a church and isn't converted into a youth program center by reason of its faith-based activities for young people. The pastor of the church even testified that all of the services and events for children are essentially faith based.

"Bi-weekly Girl Scout troop meetings and mentoring of children by adult members of the congregation were accessory or incidental to the existence and identity as a church. The church was not a youth program center. It remained a church notwithstanding the incidental activities not solely religious in nature," he wrote.

The Court of Appeals reversed Whatley's conviction and remanded for an entry of a conviction as a Class C felony and to sentence him accordingly.

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