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Justices rule on sentencing scheme

January 1, 2008
The Indiana Supreme Court has once again influenced the state's criminal sentencing scheme in a pair of rulings that are the latest in a post-Blakely world.

Justices issued decisions Thursday in Rosalio Pedraza v. State of Indiana, No. 49S04-0711-CR-516, and Michael Sweatt v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0805-CR-290, which when read together offer trial courts guidance about using a person's criminal history and enhancing penalties.

The court held that double enhancements are allowed using a single element of criminal history, but consecutive sentences can't be the result because that would be improper.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard authored both rulings in the cases originating in Marion County. Pedraza involves a car accident that killed two people in front of White River Gardens in Indianapolis following a wedding reception. A jury found him guilty on three counts of operating while intoxicated, one enhanced by his habitual substance offender status, and he received consecutive sentences totaling 52 years. Sweatt appealed his convictions for burglary and possession of a handgun by a serious violent felon, for which he received consecutive sentences totaling 70 years - enhanced because of his habitual offender status.

Key to both rulings are the Indiana General Assembly's statutory changes made since 2001, specifically those that came after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), that altered the respective sentencing schemes nationally and eventually statewide. While presumptive terms were once used, the state legislature in 2005 eliminated that method for "advisory" sentences on each offense so that courts could impose any sentence within a statutory range.

"We conclude that under Indiana's new 'advisory' sentencing scheme, such use of a prior conviction does not amount to an impermissible double enhancement," Chief Justice Shepard wrote in Pedraza, the first part of the court's dual holding.

"While we conclude that the enhancements themselves were proper, it nonetheless constituted error to order Sweatt's sentences to run consecutively, creating a double enhancement similar to the one we disapproved in (a past case)," he wrote in Sweatt. "In a case where separate counts are enhanced based on the same prior felony conviction, ordering sentences to run consecutively has the same effect as if the enhancements both applied to the same count."

In a separate dissenting opinion in Sweatt, Justices Theodore Boehm and Brent Dickson disagreed that the statutes or precedent support the no-consecutive sentences aspect of the majority's opinion in that case.

"I would think the penal consequences of these crimes, if convictions were obtained, should not be driven in either direction by the joinder decision," Justice Boehm wrote.

With these rulings, both sets of convictions are affirmed, but the cases are remanded for the trial courts to resentence the men.
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