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Justices consider 'youth program center' issue

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Walter Whatley isn't disputing the fact that he was in possession of cocaine and that he should be held accountable for that.

Instead, the Indianapolis defendant argues that he shouldn't have been convicted of Class A felony cocaine possession, which is what he was charged with given that he had the cocaine within 1,000 feet of a "youth program center" or a church near his home, where police arrested him after finding more than three grams of the illegal substance on him.

Taking his case to the Indiana Supreme Court, Whatley's attorney contends the statutory phrase of "youth program center" isn't adequately defined to include a church and it's constitutionally vague, meaning he should have received a Class C felony conviction that would have meant two to eight years rather than 20 to 50 in prison.

In its unanimous May decision, the Court of Appeals reversed Whatley's conviction on grounds that he'd been near a church, not a youth program center, and directed the trial court to enter a lesser Class C felony conviction. Specifically, the appellate panel held that the church wasn't converted into a youth program center by reason of holding faith-based activities for children, such as bi-weekly Girl Scout troop meetings and youth mentoring.

"The church was not a youth program center," the court wrote. "It remained a church notwithstanding the incidental activities not solely religious in nature."

Indiana Code Section 35-41-1-29 defines a youth program center as a "building or structure that on a regular basis provides recreational, vocational, academic, social, or other programs or services for persons less than eighteen (18) years of age."

The question of this case hinges on what that definition means, and whether it's constitutionally vague on its face or when no visible notice marks a building as a youth program center. During arguments, attorneys told justices that the trial record isn't clear if Whatley knew about the church's other focuses on youth, but it appears that no signage marked the Robinson Community Church as a youth program center.

State defender Victoria Bailey told justices that it not only mattered about having a sign marking the church or building as a youth program center, but also what the activity was happening inside. She said a factual dispute could be found in the verbiage requiring a "regular or recurring" activity, and that might not mean the same thing for everyone. People need to have the opportunity to know that a facility is a youth program center, so they can comply with the law, she said.

Justice Robert D. Rucker asked if the same rationale would apply to a school - that it wouldn't be enough to just know it was a school, but that the state would have to prove that the activities inside constituted those of a school. Bailey responded that a sign designating it as a school wouldn't be enough.

"The burden is on the state to prove each and every element of the offense," she said. "The statutory definitions for these various locations... are what matters."

On the state's behalf, attorney Ann Goodwin said the Court of Appeals' logic in this case is flawed because the panel used the basis of zoning law rather than what this particular statute says.

Justice Rucker asked about whether the definition would apply to a private residence where a family regularly has neighborhood kids over to study or stay the night. Goodwin said that wouldn't be considered a youth program center because it doesn't take in a common sense approach evident in the legislature's intent.

"A church is not per se a place where children gather, although I believe you are correct that as a practical matter, if cases go forward using churches, that the state will be likely to prove that," she said.

The statute doesn't apply to private residences, she added, and there isn't a knowledge component here. The legislature meant this to be a catchall provision to protect these places, she said,

Justice Theodore R. Boehm quickly responded to her point, saying, "It seems to me that you both want to embrace the statutory definition and also run away from it. In other words, your common sense point is correct but if you take the statutory definition then the Statehouse would become a youth center.... Yet you quite properly say how would any citizen understand that this is such a building? So there is a notice component somewhere."

He went on to grill Goodwin about the state applying the law to him, if he were to conduct youth activities in his home at 3 a.m. without anyone's knowledge outside of those there. Why wouldn't that apply, he asked?

"I do not believe Mr. Whatley's position that this is a slippery slope leading to encompassing the entire zone of Marion County," Goodwin said. "There is real guidance in the statute."

Bailey said there's a real danger of interpreting this case in a way that's overbroad, and could encompass areas such as malls, arcades, private homes - that's how the statute reads and that's why it's not clear, she said.

"All of those places, under this statute, are buildings or structures that offer programs or services, she said.

Justices have taken the case under advisement.

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  1. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

  2. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  3. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  4. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  5. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

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