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Judges disagree on public intox conviction

December 5, 2008

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a woman's conviction of public intoxication, but the judge dissenting in the case believed the majority reweighed the credibility of the witnesses and their testimony to reach their decision.

In Melissa Christian v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0803-CR-272, Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Baker and Judge Elaine Brown reversed Melissa Christian's conviction of public intoxication, citing insufficient evidence. Police found Christian attempting to unlock a car with the wrong key in the driveway of her friend's house.

Christian only appealed the determination that she was located in a public place when arrested. The state described the driveway as "an area that people in the neighborhood area use to park" but the evidence presented at trial doesn't support the claims, wrote Judge Brown. The state presented no evidence the parking area was used by the public in general rather than just by the residents nearby.

Citing previous caselaw on the reversal of public intoxication convictions, the majority reversed Christian's conviction for insufficient evidence.

Judge Paul Mathias dissented, writing that the appellate court's role is not to reweigh the credibility of the witnesses and their testimony. Christian argued the area she was at was a driveway but police testified it wasn't a driveway, but more of a parking area off the street where people can pull in and park perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

In the cases the majority cited, the defendants were asleep in a vehicle in either a private driveway or private lane, but in this case, Christian was standing outside of her vehicle in a parking area accessible to the neighboring public, the judge wrote.

Judge Mathias also wrote that if the majority's definition of a public place becomes law, it would be difficult to distinguish why an apartment complex parking lot or common parking area of a condominium complex would be a "public place," which can't be the intent of the law.

"Perhaps we might have made a different arresting decision than Officer Siefker, or come to a different conclusion than Judge Collins; perhaps not. But that is not our standard of review. Our constitutional role is to determine whether a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Christian was guilty of public intoxication beyond a reasonable doubt," he wrote. "We are not permitted to reweigh the evidence or substitute our judgment for that of Officer Siefker or the trier of fact, Judge Collins."

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