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Justices rule on sentence modification

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A conviction of a Class D felony that is later reduced to a Class A misdemeanor doesn’t prevent a trial court from modifying a sentence below the statutory minimum, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today in a matter of first impression. The prohibition of a sentence modification below the minimum is premised on a defendant who “has” a prior unrelated felony conviction.

In Julie Gardiner v. State of Indiana,  No. 08S02-0906-CR-277, Julie Gardiner appealed the trial court’s denial to modify her sentence for dealing in methamphetamine as a Class A felony in Carroll County. The trial court refused to sentence her below the statutory minimum of 20 years because of a prior unrelated felony. She had pleaded guilty in Hamilton County to possession with intent to manufacture, a Class D felony. That was later reduced to a Class A misdemeanor based on her successful completion of her probation terms. This was after she was sentenced in Carroll County.

Once her prior felony was reduced, the Carroll Circuit Court declined to reduce her sentence because at the time of her sentencing, the judgment in Hamilton County was still entered as a felony. The Carroll Circuit judge believed he was bound by the restrictions and limitations applicable at the time of the original sentence.

The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided in affirming the trial court.

The statute in question says “the court may suspend only that part of the sentence that is in excess of the minimum sentence” where “the crime committed was a Class A or Class B felony and the person has a prior unrelated felony conviction.”

The statute speaks in the present tense, but at the time she asked to have her sentence modified in Carroll County, Gardiner no longer had a prior unrelated felony conviction.

“The trial court declined to suspend Gardiner’s sentence below the statutory minimum of twenty years. On this narrow point we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker. “To the extent however the trial court’s decision was influenced by its assumption that it had no discretion to sentence otherwise, the trial court erred. We therefore remand this cause to the trial court for further consideration consistent with this opinion.”
 

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