COA reverses domestic violence determination due to Blakely violation

A trial court committed fundamental error when it determined a man convicted by a jury of Class A misdemeanor battery committed a crime of domestic violence, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

The appellate court held that the determination Scott Hitch committed a crime of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend required the court to find a fact that increased the penalty for Hitch’s conviction beyond the statutory maximum. Hitch argued the determination infringed upon his Sixth Amendment right to a jury in violation of Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004).

The Supreme Court of the United States in Blakely found that “other than a fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Due to the domestic violence determination, Hitch is prevented from owning a firearm.

In October 2013, Hitch and Erica Bruce got into an argument while at a restaurant. Once back at Hitch’s apartment, Bruce decided to contact the father of her children. Hitch got angry, grabbed her by her neck, and got on top of her. She got out of the apartment and called 911. A jury found him guilty of Class A misdemeanor battery. The trial court determined that pursuant to I.C. 35-28-1-7.7, Hitch had committed a crime of domestic violence.

“Here, Hitch did not admit that Bruce was his spouse or that she was similarly situated to a spouse. Rather, he testified that she was staying with him temporarily. While Bruce testified that they had been in an intimate relationship, Hitch testified that they were not in a relationship,” Judge John Baker wrote. “Furthermore, as the jury convicted Hitch of battery rather than domestic battery, it reached no conclusion regarding the nature of the relationship between Hitch and Bruce. Therefore, in finding that Bruce was a person who was cohabitating with or had cohabitated with Hitch as a spouse or a person who was or had been similarly situated to a spouse, the trial court was required to find a fact that increased the penalty for Hitch’s crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum in violation of Blakely. This determination infringed on Hitch’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, and it amounts to fundamental error.”

The judges remanded, Scott Hitch v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1404-CR-295, for further proceedings consistent with the opinion if the state so desires.

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