The Indiana Court of Appeals has ordered a new probation revocation hearing for a Wells County man after finding the reasons by the special judge as to why the man should serve his entire previously suspended sentence were “problematic.”
Jesse Puckett was 18 years old when he had sex with a 12-year-old girl, whom he thought was older based on how she looked and what the girl told him. Puckett pleaded guilty to one count of Class C felony child molesting in exchange for the dismissal of two Class B felony molesting charges. He received a sentence of four years, suspended to probation. The state later alleged Puckett violated probation for several reasons, including having contact with a person under the age of 18 and failing to register as a sex offender.
Puckett pleaded guilty to one count of Class D felony failure to register, and most of that sentence was suspended with the remaining six months executed. At a hearing on the state’s third amended petition to revoke probation, a special judge had to be appointed because the prosecutor at the time of Puckett’s original sentencing was now the trial judge. Puckett indicated he would admit to violating his probation by committing the Class D felony failure to register and the state would dismiss and not present any evidence on any of the other probation violation allegations.
Special Judge James Heimann made several comments before imposing the sentence on Puckett, including references to Puckett having sex with the 12-year-old, even though his guilty plea was only on a charge of fondling with intent to arouse. Heimann also commented about how he often checks the sex offender registry for information around his home and was surprised that Puckett’s original sentence was completely suspended.
In Jesse Puckett v. State of Indiana, No. 90A02-1104-CR-369, the Court of Appeals found Heimann’s statements for entirely revoking Puckett’s probation and making him serve the four years that were suspended to be problematic. Heimann continually repeated displeasure with Puckett’s original plea agreement. A trial court’s belief that a sentence imposed under a plea agreement was “too lenient” isn’t a proper basis to use for determining the length of a sentence to be imposed for a probation revocation, wrote Judge Michael Barnes. It’s also improper when revoking probation for a trial court to find that the defendant actually committed a more serious crime than the one or ones of which he or she was originally convicted.
The judges didn’t hold that any single “error” in a probation revocation statement will warrant reversal, but taken together, the trial court’s statement of reasons regarding Puckett’s revocation leads the appellate court to find Heimann abused his discretion by considering improper factors before imposing the sentence. They ordered another hearing on the revocation of probation. Barnes noted that the COA declined to require Heimann to recuse himself because there hasn’t been a motion for a change of judge.