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Justices divided on firearm 'use' sentencing

December 15, 2010

A divided Indiana Supreme Court has held that state statute dictates that the use of a firearm can be the grounds for a sentence enhancement that doesn’t constitute a double jeopardy violation.

In its eight-page decision today in Joshua G. Nicoson v. State of Indiana , No. 32S04-1003-CR-150, three of the justices held that a five-year sentence enhancement on a Hendricks County case is consistent with state statutes and the prohibition against double jeopardy.

The case involves a 27-year old man who confronted a friend’s boyfriend with a gun to help her end a relationship with him. The 17-year old boyfriend and three others arrived in a car and saw Nicoson pointing a gun in the air.

Nicoson went to a gas station and pointed a gun in the air, firing a warning shot, then held the 17-year old boyfriend and a passenger. He also pointed the gun at the boyfriend and a passenger, ordered the people at gunpoint to lie on the ground, and then fired at the car when they escaped. After a bench trial, the court found Nicoson guilty on two Class B felony counts of confinement with a deadly weapon and other felony counts of pointing a firearm. The judge added five years to one of the confinement convictions for the use of the firearm during the offense – specifically pointing out how Nicoson had held the gun to the boyfriend’s head while he was facedown on the ground.

The Court of Appeals tackled this issue of first impression in January, but came out divided in its holding that someone armed with a deadly weapon is the basis for a confinement enhancement associated with that specific Class B felony, and that the additional five-year enhancement was a separate issue going to the punishment for a person’s actual use of the deadly weapon.

A majority of the justices agreed, analyzing Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-11 that allows a judge to enhance a person's sentence to an additional fixed term of five years if the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the person "used" a firearm in the commission of the offense.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote the majority opinion, citing caselaw that finds the double jeopardy constitutional principle is aimed at multiple convictions while multiple sentencing enhancements turn on statutory interpretation. Since this five-year enhancement is not part of the criminal confinement provisions that Nicoson was charged with but falls under the penalty codes within state statute, it doesn’t interfere, the chief justice wrote.

“In effect, Nicoson is contending that the State proved too much too soon,” he wrote. “He had to mean that the legislative design seeks to impose greater penalty on a perpetuator who brings a gun to the scene of the crime and eventually pulls it out and aims it, but a lesser penalty for a perpetuator who discharges the weapon as a warning, aims it at other human beings, and brandishes it throughout the whole encounter. It cannot be so. The legislative direction in the language of the statutes is explicit. The enumeration of criminal confinement in the ‘firearm use statute’ is authorization by the General Assembly for this type of enhancement.”

Justices Steven David and Brent Dickson joined the chief justice in the majority, but Justices Robert Rucker and Frank Sullivan dissented. Though they agreed with the majority’s general observation about conviction versus penalty analysis, they determined that the facts here showed no distinction between Nicoson’s being “armed” and his “use” of the firearm. That warrants a reversal and remand to the trial court, they wrote.

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