Justices rule on plea negotiation communications

The Indiana Supreme Court has addressed the scope of privilege for plea negotiations for the first time in 20 years, upholding the conviction and sentence of a man who drove his pickup truck into an Evansville school bus while intoxicated and injured more than a dozen children.

In a six-page opinion issued Wednesday afternoon in Gabino Gonzalez v. State of Indiana, No. 82S01-0909-CR-408, the justices unanimously ruled that Vanderburgh Superior Judge Mary Margaret Lloyd erred in admitting an apology letter from the defendant after she rejected a plea agreement, but they found the error was harmless and didn’t dismiss the validity of his convictions.

“In short, the evidence supporting Gonzalez’s conviction was overwhelming without the letter,” Justice Theodore Boehm wrote. “There was essentially uncontroverted independent evidence supporting each charge, and the error in admitting his letter was therefore harmless.”

Last summer, the state’s appellate court had reversed a decision by the trial judge in admitting a letter Gonzalez wrote as part of his plea negotiations. The prosecution had agreed to dismiss two of the initial counts against Gonzalez in exchange for his guilty plea for the 2006 crash, which happened after he ran a stop sign and resulted in the bus driver and 13 children being hurt to the extent that hospital bills totaled about $9,000.

The trial court took the plea agreement under advisement and reset a sentencing date to allow the school corporation time to consider the agreement, but in the meantime Gonzalez sent a letter to the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. apologizing for the accident and admitting he drank earlier that day, asking officials to show him compassion.

But the judge rejected the plea agreement after finding parts of it seemed disingenuous, and over Gonzalez’s objection the judge admitted the letter into evidence to be used against him at trial. A jury later found him guilty of criminal mischief, operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and drunk driving that endangered a person.

Gonzalez argued on appeal that his letter was a privileged communication that shouldn't have been admitted into evidence because it was written as part of the plea negotiation process based on Indiana Code Section 35-35-3-4 and Ind. Evidence Rule 410, and the Court of Appeals agreed and remanded the case for a new trial.

The state argued that the apology letter wasn’t privileged because it didn’t go to someone with authority to enter into a binding plea bargain, but the justices disagreed on that point and found it was a communication made in connection with his guilty plea.

Analyzing an issue it hasn’t addressed since Martin v. State, 537 N.E.2d 491 (Ind. 1989), the Supreme Court found differently after reviewing the 1994-adopted evidence rules that it determined broadened the range of privileged communication during the plea negotiation process.

“We hold that a defendant’s statements made to a victim or to the court in an effort to gain acceptance of a plea agreement by the court are statements in connection with a plea agreement and therefore are not admissible in evidence pursuant to Evidence Rule 410,” Justice Boehm wrote.

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