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Supreme Court takes closer reading of precedent in affirming post-conviction relief

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A man’s 2002 guilty plea to a habitual traffic violator offense will be set aside after the Indiana Supreme Court held his 1989 conviction in Fayette County constituted a material error.
 
Russell Oney pleaded guilty in Marion Superior Court in 2002 to operating a vehicle while suspended as a HTV, a Class D felony. His designation as a HTV arose from his three operating a vehicle while intoxicated convictions.

Eight years after his guilty plea, Oney challenged his 1989 OWI conviction, alleging impropriety of the trial judge and violation of his right to counsel. The state did not oppose Oney’s petition for post-conviction relief and even entered into a joined “Agreed Entry of Post-Conviction Relief.”

The post-conviction court vacated the 1989 OWI conviction. Then Oney filed a motion to set aside his 2002 guilty plea. The trial court granted the motion, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

In arguing against the trial court’s ruling, the state asserted granting Oney’s motion contravened the precedent of the Supreme Court set forth in State v. Starks, 816 N.E.2d 32 (Ind. 2004). In that case, the Supreme Court held despite Starks’ guilty plea being set aside, he was not entitled to post-conviction relief.

Writing for the court, Justice Robert Rucker pointed out Starks was not entitled to post-conviction relief because the underlying OWI offense was vacated because of a procedural error.  

“But Starks cannot be read as standing for the proposition that the possibility of relief is forever foreclosed,” Rucker wrote. “Instead the Court declared: ‘[Although] it is not a sufficient basis for relief that the underlying offense has been set aside on procedural grounds’ however ‘if the person successfully demonstrates either to the BMV or to the court…that a ‘material error’ has occurred then the person is afforded the opportunity to pursue post-conviction relief.’”

In State of Indiana v. Russell Oney, 49A05-1212-CR-668, the Supreme Court found the Fayette County judge’s acceptance of the 1989 plea was a material error. While Oney initially maintained his innocence, he accepted the plea after repeatedly being urged by  the judge to do so.

The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, ruling the guilty plea and judgment conviction were voidable on the basis the underlying offense was vacated.


 

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