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Judges uphold convictions for attempted trafficking with an inmate

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The Indiana Court of Appeals rejected a defendant’s argument that her Class C felony conviction of attempted trafficking with an inmate violates the proportionality clause of the Indiana Constitution.

In Natalie E. Murrell v. State of Indiana, No. 67A01-1106-CR-251, Natalie Murrell attempted to bring a bag of tobacco and four cell phones into the Putnamville Correctional Facility while visiting an inmate. She was charged with Class C felony attempted trafficking with an inmate for trying to bring in the cell phones; she was charged with the same crime as a Class A misdemeanor for trying to sneak in the tobacco.

At her bench trial, Murrell asserted a defense of duress, saying she was threatened by unknown people to smuggle in the items. She was convicted of the two charges.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the rejection of Murrell’s duress defense, finding that while she was threatened over the telephone to bring in the items, she was also promised she would receive money for medicine in exchange for delivering the contraband. Also, at any time, she could have called the police.

Murrell’s claim that her Class C felony conviction violates the proportionality clause of the state constitution has two aspects. She argued since cell phones aren’t as dangerous as weapons or controlled substances – the other items that also would warrant a Class C felony charge – she claimed it is constitutionally inappropriate to impose the same penalty. She also argued she is being punished more harshly for bringing in a cell phone than an inmate would be for possessing one.

The judges found the presence of a cell phone in prison can undermine discipline and facilitate other misconduct, as well as allowing inmates to direct criminal activity from behind bars. Therefore, the Class C felony conviction is not disproportionate merely because trafficking in cell phones is treated similarly to bringing controlled substances and weapons.

With regards to Murrell’s argument she’s receiving a harsher punishment for trafficking than an inmate would for possessing a cell phone, the judges noted that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for an inmate to get a cell phone if a visitor didn’t bring one into the prison.

“Therefore, the legislature could have reasonably decided it is easier to deter contraband by punishing most harshly those who attempt to bring contraband into a prison,” wrote Senior Judge Betty Barteau.

The COA ordered the trial court to resentence her because at a hearing, the trial court said the sentences would be served concurrently, but in the final order, the court ordered Murrell to serve them consecutively. The judges found the concurrent sentence order to be more appropriate.

 

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