Justices: law requires courts' reasons in sentencing

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Trial courts must issue sentencing statements that include a detailed account of the judge's reasons for imposing penalties, such as aggravators and mitigators, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

Additionally, the state's highest court has reiterated that it will only review a sentence on the grounds of abuse of discretion.

In a ruling that answers questions left open following the 2005 revision of state law regarding Indiana's sentencing structure, justices unanimously affirmed a Kosciusko Superior judge's decision in Alexander J. Anglemyer v. State of Indiana, 40S05-0606-CR-230.

"We hold that where a trial court imposes sentence for a felony offense, it is required to issue a sentencing statement that includes a reasonably detailed recitation of the trial court's reasons for the sentence imposed," Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote. "The standard of review is abuse of discretion."

Two other decisions issued today tie into the Anglemyer sentencing ruling: Morris Windhorst v. State of Indiana, 49S04-0701-CR-32, and Aaron D. McDonald v. State of Indiana, 20S03-0706-CR-252

Justice Rucker wrote all three opinions, referring to the Anglemyer decision in the Windhorst and McDonald rulings.

These cases are the latest in a growing line of litigation stemming from the United States Supreme Court's landmark 2004 ruling in Blakely v. Washington, which held that nation's sentencing structure was unconstitutional and that juries - not judges - must hear evidence before sentences can be enhanced. Indiana adopted in 2005 a similar ruling in Smylie v. State, and the legislature soon revised the law.

A portion of the law that courts have disagreed on involves the phrase, "If the court finds aggravating circumstances or mitigating circumstances," then a statement with reasons for that penalty should be imposed.

In the aftermath, the Indiana Court of Appeals has been divided on whether and to what extent trial judges are now required to make sentencing statements explaining their penalty decisions, and whether any such statements must include findings of aggravating and mitigating factors. A closely related issue has also been the scope and role of appellate review.

"This language suggests a legislative acknowledgment that a sentencing statement identifying aggravators and mitigators retains its status as an integral part of the trial court's sentencing procedure," Justice Rucker wrote in Anglemyer, noting that judges are only prohibited from finding aggravators and enhancing a sentence beyond the statutory maximum.

This case comes from Anglemyer's May 2005 arrest for beating and robbing a pizza delivery driver, and the subsequent plea agreement dictating a 16-year consecutive sentence - 10 years for the robbery and six years for battery. Anglemyer appealed on the issue of whether the maximum possible sentence imposed was inappropriate and the trial court erred in identifying and weighing aggravating and mitigating factors.

After outlining the background and history of the sentencing scheme and flood of caselaw in recent years, the justices affirmed.

The court wrote that only abuse of discretion will warrant appellate review of a sentence and outlined possible ways for that abuse to happen.

Specifically, Justice Rucker wrote the process for what the appellate review of sentences should be: trial court's entering a statement that can be reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion, the relative weight or value of reasons found is not subject to review, and merits of a sentence can be sought elsewhere on grounds outlined in appellate rules.

"The real concern was that everything was up in the air on how you review sentences," said Indianapolis attorney Michael Limrick, who has closely been following this and related cases. "But this lays out the process and offers clarity and guidance. This is clear as can be and will be helpful to practicing attorneys."

This decision from Indiana's highest jurists comes on the heels of a ruling Thursday by the Supreme Court of the United States in Rita v. United States, which held by an 8-1 margin that a federal court of appeals may treat a sentence within the guideline range as presumptively reasonable when evaluating District Court rulings.

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