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Justices rule on first impression issue involving sentence modification

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The Indiana Supreme Court handed down two opinions Thursday afternoon in which the justices found the trial judges involved erred in modifying the defendants’ sentences from Class D felonies to Class A misdemeanors.

The justices addressed the first impression issue in State of Indiana v. Jeffrey Brunner, No. 57S04-1010-CR-603; and the companion opinion, State of Indiana v. Charles Boyle, No. 49S05-1105-PC-305. In both cases, Jeffrey Brunner and Charles Boyle petitioned for modifications of their Class D felony offenses – to which they pleaded guilty - to be modified to Class A misdemeanors several years after the convictions and sentences were entered. The trial judges granted the men’s motions, and the state appealed.

In Brunner, the justices first had to decide whether the state had the statutory right to appeal the modification of his conviction, which they concluded it did. The legislature didn’t provide the trial court the statutory authority to modify Brunner’s conviction, and because this is a pure question of law that doesn’t require evidence outside the record, the state has the limited ability to appeal a trial court’s modification of a conviction under the circumstances of this case, wrote Justice Steven David.

Then, the justices analyzed Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-7, which was applicable at the time of Brunner’s conviction, and I.C. Section 35-38-1-1.5, which became applicable later in 2003, to determine the legislative intent in granting authority to the trial courts to reduce Class D felonies to Class A misdemeanors. The high court concluded this is limited to the moment the trial court first entered its judgment of conviction and before the trial court announces its sentence.

The justices cited their decision in Brunner to hold that the trial court erred in modifying Charles Boyle’s sentence. Justice David wrote in Boyle that under I.C. Section 35-38-1-1.5, the trial court had to enter the misdemeanor conviction within three years of the entry of the judgment, all the parties must agree to the conditions, and the defendant must meet those agreed upon conditions. There’s no record that the trial court originally considered modifying Boyle’s sentence nor did the state consent to a misdemeanor sentence, wrote the justice. Also, the trial court didn’t modify his sentence within three years.

“Although it may be equitable and desirable for the legislature to give a trial court discretion in modifying a conviction years later for good behavior, we recognize at this time the legislature has not given any such authority. It may be appropriate for a trial court judge to be able to weigh mitigating and aggravating factors such as the hardship on the defendant’s family in making a conviction-modification decision,” wrote Justice David in Brunner.

“One of the purposes of the discussion regarding sentencing reform is to keep those offenders in prison that need to be in prison and to give more favor to those offenders who deserve an earlier opportunity to be productive citizens. The trial court believed it was assisting a defendant who had demonstrated he was worthy of an opportunity to have his conviction modified. However, at this time, the legislature has not enacted any such authority for the trial court.”

In both cases, the justices ordered the trial courts to reinstate the original judgment of conviction.

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