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COA judge issues 8-page criticism of trial court missteps

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a juvenile court’s order of restitution, stating the court failed to investigate the young man’s ability to pay, and that the damage amount could not be determined to be reasonable. Judge Melissa S. May agreed with the majority, but wrote an eight-page separate opinion stating that the trial court’s many errors – including the omission of key pieces of evidence – hampered the COA’s ability to perform its review of the case.

In J.H. v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-1005-JV-560, the state dropped a criminal mischief allegation when the juvenile defendant pleaded guilty to unlawful residential entry. The teen had tried to enter a neighbor’s home without permission and, in doing so, had damaged the door.

The neighbor had presented two estimates for repair – a first estimate of $1,000 and a second for $1,117.65. The estimates were not submitted to the defense, did not show the cost of materials and labor, and were not entered into evidence. The defense challenged the validity of the estimates and requested a dispositional hearing to question the first contractor about his estimate, but he did not appear for the hearing. The appeals court held the juvenile court failed to recognize that it is the state’s burden to prove the validity of the estimates.

In her separate opinion, Judge May wrote about the lack of completeness of the record. In a footnote, she wrote about the missing repair estimates: “If something is purported to be ‘evidence’ to establish an amount being claimed for restitution, the party seeking to use it should ensure it can be provided to the court and opposing counsel. Counsel presumably could have found a copy machine.”

She said the clerk had obviously failed to provide the documents necessary for the counsels to prepare their briefs. She also questioned why the victim’s impact statement – which had been scanned into the court’s case management system – was not part of the record on appeal.

In summary, Judge May wrote, “While I concur with the majority’s result, our decision must be read in light of the procedural missteps by trial counsel, the clerk, the trial court, and appellate counsel, as I have noted herein. These issues are not unique to this case, and are troubling when liberties are at stake.”

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