ILNews

High court: 'Contact' must be clearly defined

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Supreme Court has determined what kind of "contact" a convicted child molester can have without violating probation.

In the court's 4-1 decision April 2 in Theron W. Hunter v. State of Indiana, No. 69S01-0708-CR-332, the justices reversed Ripley Circuit Judge Carl Taul's 2006 ruling to revoke Hunter's probation. The case is remanded with instruction to reinstate the probation.

Hunter was convicted in 2000 of felony child molesting and sentenced to eight years, with four years suspended. He was released in July 2006 and placed on probation, but three months later the county probation department sought to revoke that probation. The trial court determined he'd violated his probation by living on his father's property 15 feet from his half-sister's mobile home where three children ages 14 to 18 lived, and that he had been in that mobile home remodeling the bathroom at times when the children came home from school. Hunter testified that he'd pack up and leave as quickly as possible about the time school left out, but sometimes he wasn't able to leave before they got home.

At issue was a probation condition that he "must never be alone with or have contact with any person under the age 18 ... Contact includes face-to-face, telephonic, written, electronic, or any indirect contact via third parties." Any "incidental contact" also had to be reported within 24 hours to his probation officer.

While Hunter contended that "contact" meant some type of "interaction," the state construed the word more broadly and argued it meant merely being in the presence of anyone under 18 and that was sufficient to prove a probation violation. The Court of Appeals agreed in a memorandum ruling in June.

But a majority of the state justices disagreed, indicating the wording of the probation condition was "ambiguous" and isn't enough to have revoked Hunter's probation.

In writing for the majority, Justice Brent Dickson noted that Hunter had cited a decade-old appellate ruling of Wright v. State, 688 N.E.2d 224, 266 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997) that quoted Webster's Dictionary in noting "contact" means "establishing of communication with someone" or "to get into communication with," as well as "communication occurs when a person makes something known or transmits information to another." Justice Dickson also observed that the word "is not commonly understood to occur by mere presence alone."

"If the trial court intended a condition of probation to prohibit the defendant from the behavior shown by the evidence in this case, effective deterrence and fair advance notice necessitate that the choice of language must clearly describe the prohibited contact," Justice Dickson wrote. "The probation condition in this case lacked sufficient clarity to provide the defendant with fair notice that the conduct at issue would constitute a violation of probation."

He also wrote that the occasional "incidental contact" with his sister's children didn't constitute a violation because the vagary of the word in this case.

Justice Frank Sullivan disagreed with his colleagues, writing in a dissent that the probation conditions clearly defined what the word "contact" meant, that it didn't require "interaction," and the term "face-to-face" was not vague.

"There is no dispute but that Hunter was present on multiple occasions in the mobile home when the children came home from school," he wrote. "This was sufficient evidence for the trial court to conclude that Hunter had face-to-face contact with children under the age of 18. He did not report the contact to his probation officer within 24 hours of the contact. This was sufficient to support the revocation of his probation."
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  1. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  2. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  3. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  4. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

  5. Can I get this form on line,if not where can I obtain one. I am eligible.

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