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Judges reverse theft conviction

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a defendant's conviction of theft because the trial court failed to instruct the jury on conversion as a lesser-included offense of theft.

In Roger L. Morris v. State of Indiana, No. 02A03-0905-CR-210, the trial judge declined Roger Morris' request for an instruction on conversion partly because of a Court of Appeals case in which the appellate court found theft and conversion offenses to appear to be one and the same from a practical standpoint, but that there was a difference in the mens rea required. Morris was convicted of Class D felony theft and found to be a habitual offender.

The appellate court in the instant case found Morris' case illustrated the "elusive difference" between theft and conversion as laid out by the legislature. Department store security saw Morris stuffing merchandise into a black bag. He was recognized because he had previously shoplifted from the store. When approached by security, he dropped the bag and ran out of the store. He was caught by the employees and only had a small knife and a toothbrush on him.

It's clear Morris exerted unauthorized control over the store's items because he tried to hide the fact he was putting them in the bag and had no way to pay for them, which would support a conversion conviction. But the evidence disputes whether Morris intended to deprive the store of the use and value of the clothing for any period of time, which is needed to convict him of theft, wrote Judge Terry Crone.

In light of Morris' seemingly reckless actions and the fact he only had the toothbrush and small knife on him, a reasonable jury may find him guilty of conversion instead of theft.

Even viewing theft and conversion as one and the same crime, the law supports giving the lesser included offense instruction, the judge continued. If the two crimes can be proven by identical elements, but carry different sentencing ranges, then prosecutors would be likely to pursue the Class D felony charge to get the longer sentence for a theft conviction. 

"In sum, if criminal conversion as a class A misdemeanor and theft as a class D felony are indeed two different crimes as outlined by our legislature, then the trial court abused its discretion by failing to instruct the jury as to the lesser-included offense of conversion," wrote Judge Crone. "If the elements of conversion and theft have no practical difference, then the rule of lenity and/or the proportionality clause of the U.S. Constitution would entitle Morris to have the jury instructed on both crimes."

Judge Nancy Vaidik concurred in result. The judges remanded the case for retrial.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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