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Justices divided on firearm 'use' sentencing

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A divided Indiana Supreme Court has held that state statute dictates that the use of a firearm can be the grounds for a sentence enhancement that doesn’t constitute a double jeopardy violation.

In its eight-page decision today in Joshua G. Nicoson v. State of Indiana , No. 32S04-1003-CR-150, three of the justices held that a five-year sentence enhancement on a Hendricks County case is consistent with state statutes and the prohibition against double jeopardy.

The case involves a 27-year old man who confronted a friend’s boyfriend with a gun to help her end a relationship with him. The 17-year old boyfriend and three others arrived in a car and saw Nicoson pointing a gun in the air.

Nicoson went to a gas station and pointed a gun in the air, firing a warning shot, then held the 17-year old boyfriend and a passenger. He also pointed the gun at the boyfriend and a passenger, ordered the people at gunpoint to lie on the ground, and then fired at the car when they escaped. After a bench trial, the court found Nicoson guilty on two Class B felony counts of confinement with a deadly weapon and other felony counts of pointing a firearm. The judge added five years to one of the confinement convictions for the use of the firearm during the offense – specifically pointing out how Nicoson had held the gun to the boyfriend’s head while he was facedown on the ground.

The Court of Appeals tackled this issue of first impression in January, but came out divided in its holding that someone armed with a deadly weapon is the basis for a confinement enhancement associated with that specific Class B felony, and that the additional five-year enhancement was a separate issue going to the punishment for a person’s actual use of the deadly weapon.

A majority of the justices agreed, analyzing Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-11 that allows a judge to enhance a person's sentence to an additional fixed term of five years if the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the person "used" a firearm in the commission of the offense.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote the majority opinion, citing caselaw that finds the double jeopardy constitutional principle is aimed at multiple convictions while multiple sentencing enhancements turn on statutory interpretation. Since this five-year enhancement is not part of the criminal confinement provisions that Nicoson was charged with but falls under the penalty codes within state statute, it doesn’t interfere, the chief justice wrote.

“In effect, Nicoson is contending that the State proved too much too soon,” he wrote. “He had to mean that the legislative design seeks to impose greater penalty on a perpetuator who brings a gun to the scene of the crime and eventually pulls it out and aims it, but a lesser penalty for a perpetuator who discharges the weapon as a warning, aims it at other human beings, and brandishes it throughout the whole encounter. It cannot be so. The legislative direction in the language of the statutes is explicit. The enumeration of criminal confinement in the ‘firearm use statute’ is authorization by the General Assembly for this type of enhancement.”

Justices Steven David and Brent Dickson joined the chief justice in the majority, but Justices Robert Rucker and Frank Sullivan dissented. Though they agreed with the majority’s general observation about conviction versus penalty analysis, they determined that the facts here showed no distinction between Nicoson’s being “armed” and his “use” of the firearm. That warrants a reversal and remand to the trial court, they wrote.

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  • Multiple Enhancements
    I believe that the issue here is that Nicoson was convicted of Criminal Confinement with a Deadly Weapon and then had a weapons ehancement added on. Criminal Confinement is a D felony which is enhanced to a B felony when a firearm is used. To add a further enhancement to an already enhanced sentence is blatantly unconstitutional under US Law. In Indiana, however, the General Assembly allows this double enhancement. Hopefully the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission will retract this error. This is clearly double sentencing and therefore double jeopardy.
  • Incorrect
    The facts about Joshua Nicoson's case are not recorded accurately here. The five men came to Joshua's home to confront him over an earlier phone call -- Josh did not fire a gun at a gas station, as reported here. He was on his own property. Further, none of the victims ever testified that Josh pointed a gun at his head, only the trial judge made that declaration. Unfortunately, this is not a case of shoddy reporting by this website -- all of these inaccuracies were presented in the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court cases. It's too bad that the true facts of the case never had the chance to come out.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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