Justices' pointed questions go to the heart of State v. Cheryl Oddi-Smith, 49A05-0708-CR-445, a drunk driving case that Marion Superior Judge Rueben Hill ruled on in early August, throwing out a woman's arrest because of the oath-taking issue. The Indiana Attorney General's office filed a petition in August to appeal the case directly to the state's highest court. Justices accepted emergency transfer Oct. 9 to bypass the Court of Appeals, citing Appellate Rule 56(A) that notes in rare cases the court can bypass the lower court "upon a showing that the appeal involves a substantial question of law of great public importance and that an emergency exists requiring a speedy determination."
This high-profile appeal comes after Judge Hill in Criminal Court 18 - himself a former Indiana State Police trooper - decided that the January drunk-driving arrest of Oddi-Smith was illegal because the arresting officer was not officially sworn in after the police merger of the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department. Only top officials and a few officers took the oath following the merger, according to defense attorneys James Voyles and Annie Fierek.
The judge noted in his opinion that the main legal issue is whether this merger created an entirely new police agency, and if so then all officers would need to be sworn in again.
Potentially at stake in the case: thousands of arrests made this year. Though Judge Hill has vowed not to hold this standard to other cases, and the officers have since taken an official oath, defense attorneys could still have a field day with appeals on countless arrests made by the law enforcement agency.
Cynthia Ploughe, deputy attorney general arguing for the Indiana Attorney General's Office, told the court that oaths are mostly ceremonial and don't mean much - it's the training that matters more.
"There is no state law that requires the IMDP to be sworn in; they are de facto officers," she said, mentioning that the local in-house ordinance can't be applied as a law.
Justice Brent Dickson interjected arguments at one point, asking the importance of this issue that seems more like a "fictional issue" than anything of practical importance. He posed the question of whether an officer is less obligated to the Constitution by not taking an oath.
Voyles countered the state's point, noting that an oath is more than just a "technical nicety" and is a promise that officers will uphold the Constitution.
Justice Frank Sullivan picked up on the term "consolidated" and compared the law enforcement consolidation to a corporate merger, where the new entity is beholden to all the previous liability and obligations the former two agencies had.
He pondered what would happen to lawsuits or actions filed to a previous agency if that liability went away with a consolidation, and his colleagues picked up on that thought. Justice Ted Boehm noted that it could create an opportunity for municipalities to create a shell game to avoid liability, washing their hands clean of any potential trouble by forming a new entity.
"If an oath doesn't carry over, what else doesn't carry over," Justice Sullivan asked. "What implications does that have, and how can that make sense?"
You can watch the Supreme Court arguments online at http://www.indianacourts.org/apps/webcasts.