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Judges split on endangerment issue

February 19, 2010

The Indiana Court of Appeals found the state proved a defendant had driven drunk, but the judges disagreed as to whether the state showed the man had endangered others with his driving.

In James Dorsett v. State of Indiana, No. 82A01-0906-CR-292, James Dorsett appealed his conviction of operating a vehicle while intoxicated as a Class A misdemeanor, which requires showing that his operation of his car endangered a person. A Vanderburgh County Sheriff sergeant spotted Dorsett in his car, which was parked and running in the middle of a parking lot early in the morning. Dorsett was slumped over in the car and took more than 30 seconds to wake up after the sergeant got to the car. He told the officer he was at a friend's party, on his way home, and had stopped at a McDonald's for food. Dorsett appeared intoxicated and tests showed his blood alcohol content at 0.12 percent.

Dorsett was convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated as Class A and Class C misdemeanors. His convictions were merged and he was sentenced only on the Class A misdemeanor.

Even though the sergeant didn't see Dorsett driving his car, the state presented enough circumstantial evidence to show Dorsett had driven. The sergeant testified Dorsett told him he had drank at a friend's house and then drove to McDonald's. Based on the time he went to McDonald's, only the drive-thru window would have been open. It could be reasonably inferred that Dorsett drove to McDonald's and then parked his car in the nearby parking lot, the appellate judges concluded. This was sufficient to only support his Class C misdemeanor conviction, so the majority reversed the Class A misdemeanor conviction and remanded for judgment and sentence to be entered on the Class C misdemeanor conviction.

Judge Cale Bradford dissented on the reversal of the Class A misdemeanor conviction, believing the state proved endangerment by presenting evidence Dorsett was much more than minimally intoxicated and his driving created a risk.

"In my view, a fact-finder should be free to conclude, based on a high level of intoxication alone, that a driver endangered himself or others when he operated a vehicle, even if no direct evidence of dangerous operation was presented," he wrote.

Based on the evidence and testimony of the sergeant, one could conclude Dorsett was so drunk he wasn't capable of driving his car into a parking space or turning the engine off before passing out. Clearly anyone operating a vehicle in that condition poses a serious threat to public safety, wrote Judge Bradford.

Judge Edward Najam wrote in a footnote for the majority that Judge Bradford commingled the Class A misdemeanor charge with the Class C charge, stating that "intoxication alone" is sufficient to support a Class A misdemeanor conviction as long as the intoxication is "more than minimal."

"But the statute as recently amended does not recognize degrees of intoxication and clearly requires more than intoxication to establish endangerment," wrote Judge Najam.

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