ILNews

Court reverses auto theft conviction

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a conviction of auto theft and remanded the case to the trial court, citing insufficient evidence to prove the defendant had exclusive possession of the vehicle from the time of the theft until police saw him in the stolen car.

In Steven Shelby v. State of Indiana, 49A05-0704-CR-202, Shelby appealed his conviction and sentence of auto theft, a Class D felony, and the trial court's finding him to be a habitual offender.

On Nov. 7,2006, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Bennett saw two people sitting in a Buick in a parking lot. The Buick was similar to one that was reported stolen Oct. 23, 2006. Bennett followed the car to a house, where the people in it parked and walked up the street. Bennett stopped them - Shelby was one of the people - and asked why they were leaving their car at the house. Shelby replied it was not his car, he didn't drive it, and gave the officer his learner's permit.

Police discovered the car was stolen and arrested Shelby. Police noticed the steering column was broken, and found a butter knife on the car's floorboard, but no keys or other items that could be used to start the car were found on Shelby. After reading Shelby his Miranda rights, he admitted to driving the vehicle.

During trial, the court refused defense counsel jury instructions that when a considerable amount of time has passed from the date of the theft and an arrest, something needs to demonstrate the accused has had exclusive possession of the stolen item for the entire time. The court also refused defense jury instructions indicating unexplained possession of stolen property may be sufficient to support an auto theft conviction, but that is only permitted if the property is recently stolen.

The jury found Shelby guilty of auto theft; he later pleaded guilty to the habitual offender allegation and was sentenced to consecutive sentences of 545 days for auto theft and 1,285 days on the habitual offender charge. Shelby appealed, challenging the sufficiency of evidence to support his conviction on the auto theft charge.

In an opinion authored by Judge Cale Bradford, the Court of Appeals determined there was not sufficient evidence to convict Shelby. When there is considerable time between the actual theft and an arrest, there must be something that shows the defendant had exclusive possession of the property during that time period, citing Muse v. State, 419 N.E.2d at 1304.

There was a 15-day gap between the theft and Shelby's possession of the car, and his possession would not be characterized as recent. His conviction cannot be upheld merely because he possessed or exercised control of the car, wrote Judge Bradford. The state did not show evidence that suggested Shelby had exclusive possession of the car from the time it was stolen until he was arrested, the court found. Also, there was no evidence on Shelby of keys or other items that would be used to start the vehicle, only the butter knife on the car's floorboard. No connection between Shelby and the knife was ever established.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to vacate Shelby's conviction for auto theft and the resulting habitual offender finding.
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