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Justices address habitual-offender statute

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The Indiana Supreme Court tackled the state’s habitual-offender statute today in two separate rulings, finding that an instant offense of drug dealing, coupled with a prior conviction, can qualify a defendant as a habitual offender.

In Andre Peoples v. State of Indiana, No. 79S02-0912-CR-549, Andre Peoples argued his instant offense of dealing in cocaine couldn’t be used in calculating the total number of unrelated felony convictions a person has for drug dealing. Peoples had prior unrelated convictions in Illinois for forgery and dealing in cocaine.

The trial court found Peoples was a habitual offender and sentenced him to an additional 10 years on top of his 10-year sentence for the Class B felony dealing in cocaine.  

The justices examined Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-8 and found subsections (b) and (d) work in concert to assure that all offenders who have accumulated three felony convictions, and at least one is a felony drug conviction, are treated alike, regardless of the order in which they were accumulated. They rejected Peoples’ interpretation that a person with an instant felony conviction for forgery and two prior felony drug convictions would be eligible for the enhancement, but someone whose prior convictions are forgery and a drug offense, and whose instant felony conviction is for a drug offense wouldn’t be eligible for enhancement.

“When the State filed Defendant’s habitual offender charge, he had accumulated one felony drug conviction. But we do not read the language of subsection (a) to preclude the State from filing habitual offender charges with respect to a defendant who, if convicted on the underlying charges, will have accumulated two unrelated felony drug convictions by the time habitual offender proceedings commence,” wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

In Myron Owens v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0910-CR-429, the justices held that a conspiracy-to-deal conviction is not equivalent to a dealing conviction for the purposes of the habitual offender statute. Owens was convicted of Class A felony dealing in cocaine, Class B felony possession of cocaine and other charges. He was found to be a habitual offender based on his prior convictions of dealing in cocaine and conspiracy to deal.

The statute only counts certain offenses as prior felonies. If a defendant’s instant offense falls under Chapter 16-42-19 or 35-48-4, and isn’t specified in I.C. 35-50-2-2(b)(4), then the state can only seek to enhance the sentence if the defendant has two or more unrelated convictions for a dealing offense identified in subsection 8(b)(3)(C) of the habitual-offender statute. Conspiracy to deal isn’t explicitly set out in that subsection, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm.

The justices agreed with the reasoning in Huff v. State that because conspiracy to deal is a separate offense and not listed with dealing among the nonsuspendable offenses, conspiracy to deal is not suspendable under Indiana Code. They declined to equate conspiracy to deal with the dealing offenses found in subsection 8(b)(3)(C).

But because of Owens’ prior conviction of dealing in cocaine paired with his instant dealing conviction, he can be sentenced with a habitual-offender enhancement, wrote Justice Boehm. The justices affirmed his convictions and sentences in the instant case.
 

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