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COA divided on dismissal of OWI charges

December 9, 2010

The Indiana Court of Appeals split on whether a defendant’s operating while intoxicated charges should have been dismissed because the charging information didn’t let the man know what vehicle he needed to defend against operating.

Police saw a Lexus in a ditch on the side of the road and Richard Laker hitching the car to the back of a Massey Ferguson farm tractor. Laker told police that a friend wrecked the car and asked Laker to tow it out. Laker didn’t have a driver’s license, his driving privileges had been suspended, and he blew a 0.10 on a chemical breath test.

The state charged him with four counts: Count I alleged he unlawfully, knowingly or intentionally operated a motor vehicle while driving privileges were suspended; Count II alleged he unlawfully operated a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration equivalent to at least 0.08; Count III alleged he operated a vehicle while intoxicated; and Count IV alleged he had a prior OWI conviction. None of the charges specified whether it was the tractor or the Lexus that he allegedly illegally operated. The probable cause affidavit described the subject vehicle as the tractor.

Laker moved to dismiss the charges, which the trial court granted.

The appellate judges agreed in State of Indiana v. Richard J. Laker, Jr., No. 24A04-0912-CR-736, that Count I should have been dismissed. The charging information for that count didn’t specify what vehicle he allegedly operated, and Laker couldn’t prepare a proper defense without that knowledge.

“That Laker moved to dismiss this charge on the ground a farm tractor was not a ‘motor vehicle’ and because he was prohibited from operating while suspended demonstrates the information did not ‘specify the facts and circumstances which inform the accused of the particular offense coming under the general description with which he is charged,’” wrote Judge Melissa May in the majority opinion.

Finding that the charging information for the other counts were virtually identically in structure to Count I, the majority found them to also be deficient.

Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented on the dismissal of Counts II, III, and IV. She noted that the Indiana Supreme Court has indicated that even where a charging information may lack appropriate factual detail, additional materials such as a probable cause affidavit supporting the charging instrument may be taken into account in determining whether a defendant has been apprised of the charges against him. She found the state’s pleading materials on the whole, which include the probable cause affidavit and summons ticket that describe the subject vehicle as the tractor, sufficiently apprised Laker of the state’s charges.

“I agree with the majority that, given the unique circumstances alleged in this case, identifying the vehicle in the charging instrument would have been ideal. I would conclude, however, as the trial court impliedly did in its ruling, that the probable cause affidavit and summons tickets cure any purported omission and clarify that the State’s charges are premised on Laker’s farm tractor,” she wrote.

Since a farm tractor isn’t excluded from the definition of “vehicle” for purposes of OWI, she wrote she would find those counts are sustainable and the trial court erred by dismissing them.

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