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Justices address judicial-temperance presumption

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The Indiana Supreme Court used an opinion Thursday to reaffirm the limitation described in Fletcher v. State on the judicial-temperance presumption.

Joshua Konopasek appealed his Class C felony conviction of battery causing serious bodily injury. At his trial, Konopasek claimed he pushed the victim in self defense, but he didn’t cause the victim’s broken jaw. On direct examination, Konopasek’s attorney elicited testimony from Konopasek regarding his probationary status; on cross-examination, the state asked Konopasek “And you’ve got quite a bit of time hanging over your head?” Konopasek objected, but the judge allowed the question.

On appeal, Konopasek argued, among other things, that the trial court abused its discretion when admitting evidence elicited by the state regarding his probation. The Indiana Court of Appeals found the court shouldn’t have admitted the evidence, but it was a harmless error. The judges concluded that Konopasek didn’t overcome the judicial-temperance presumption – the presumption that in a bench trial, the judge will disregard inadmissible and irrelevant evidence.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer to address the admissibility of the evidence in question and to reaffirm Fletcher v. State, 264 Ind. 132, 340 N.E.2d 771 (1976), as it relates to the judicial-temperance presumption. The justices affirmed the Court of Appeals on the remaining issues and affirmed Konopasek’s conviction and sentence.

In Joshua Konopasek v. State of Indiana, No. 25S03-1012-CR-669, the Supreme Court reviewed the admission of Konopasek’s testimony on the length of his suspended sentence only, and only considered the relevancy of the testimony in question. The justices found the testimony was a classic “he said-he said” case, wrote Justice Steven David, and evidence impeaching Konopasek was significantly relevant. They also held the probative value of the evidence wasn’t outweighed by unfair prejudice.

Turning to Fletcher, Justice David explained that the Supreme Court set parameters on the judicial-temperance presumption in cases where a defendant makes a specific objection to the admission of evidence. The justices decided not to apply the judicial-temperance presumption to the instant case because the evidence in question was relevant and admissible.

The justices then went on to reaffirm the limits on the presumption as explained in Fletcher and clarified the interplay between the presumption and harmless-error analysis.

“On appeal, when a defendant challenges the admissibility of evidence at a bench trial and the evidence in fact was inadmissible, the judicial-temperance presumption comes into play. One way a defendant can overcome the presumption is by showing the trial court admitted the evidence over a specific objection, as in Fletcher,” wrote the justice. “If a defendant does overcome the presumption, the reviewing court then engages in full harmless-error analysis: the error is harmless if the ‘reviewing court is satisfied that the conviction is supported by substantial independent evidence of guilt so that there is no substantial likelihood that the challenged evidence contributed to the conviction.’ Meadows v. State, 785 N.E.2d 1112, 1122 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003). If a defendant cannot overcome the presumption, a reviewing court presumes the trial court disregarded the improper evidence and accordingly finds the error harmless.”
 

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