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Justices decide statute, court rule issue

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Even if a court rule is no longer relevant and an underlying state statute has been removed from the books, the Indiana Supreme Court says it still applies and must be followed until the justices revisit it themselves or say otherwise.

In a decision issued Friday by the Indiana Supreme Court, justices explored the controversial issue of police wiretapping and prosecutorial warrants, and how state statute has evolved since the early 1990s. The case is State v. Michael Haldeman and Rachel Lawson, No. 55S00-0906-CR-266, and involves two consolidated appeals.

The case involves the police investigation of a drug tracking organization centered in Morgan County, an investigation that began in late 2007. Eventually, police had enough information to request "intercept warrants" that would allow them to put wiretaps on certain cell and residential phone lines. Morgan Superior Judge Jane Spencer Craney found probable cause for these warrants and granted them, which led to the eventual arrests of both Michael Haldeman and Rachel Lawson. They were arrested and charged in 2008 with one or more counts of conspiracy to deal methamphetamine, a Class B felony.

But in getting those underlying wiretapping warrants, prosecutors hadn't complied with Criminal Rule 25 that required an independent preliminary review by the Indiana Court of Appeals before the warrants could be acted on. The Indiana Supreme Court had established the rule in 1990, soon after the General Assembly enacted Indiana Code 35-33.5-3-3 requiring that kind of judicial review, but legislators repealed that statute in 2007 - before this case materialized. At the trial level, Morgan Superior Judge Christopher Burnham found that the state should have complied with Criminal Rule 25 despite the statute's repeal; he suppressed the wiretap-garnered evidence as a result.

The state argued that Criminal Rule 25 was created solely to "accompany and give support to a statute," and that the legislature's repeal of that statute vitiated the need for any procedures to implement the now-defunct requirement. In essence, the court rule no longer applies because the statute has been revoked. But the defense argued that Criminal Rule 25 remains in effect despite the repeal, particularly because appellate judges can provide a more "neutral and detached" review on such a difficult issue touching on citizens' privacy and civil liberties.

The case went up on appeal, but the state sought emergency transfer from the Supreme Court and justices heard arguments in September before granting transfer and issuing its decision today.

In writing for the court, Justice Brent Dickson found that Criminal Rule 25 clearly was intended to supply the procedural framework for automatic review detailed in the state statute. But even when that law's been repealed, it doesn't automatically invalidate or vitiate a criminal procedure rule established by the high court.

"Until amended or rescinded by this Court, the validity of Criminal Rule 25 and its procedural requirements remain in full force and effect," he wrote. "The policy arguments presented by the State and the defendants, while relevant to whether the Rule should be modified or repealed in the future do not affect its present validity."

Even though the state erred in not following Criminal Rule 25 in these cases, the justices said that doesn't mean Judge Burnham should have automatically suppressed the wiretapping warrants issued by his colleague. Instead, he should have determined whether the pair's "substantial rights" were affected before making that decision. Finding that neither party demonstrated their substantial rights were affected by the state's failure to follow Criminal Rule 25, the justices reversed the suppression.

All five justices agreed in the final decision, though Justice Robert Rucker concurred in result. The cases are remanded for further proceedings, with the wiretapping warrants not suppressed.

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