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Justices affirm domestic violence determination

April 12, 2016

The Indiana Supreme Court sided with the trial court and overturned a Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday, finding a man’s domestic violence determination did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and the evidence was sufficient to affirm his conviction.

Scott Hitch lived with Erica Bruce for eight months before Bruce moved out. Bruce moved back in with Hitch temporarily, and while the two were at a bar they got into a fight. The fight escalated at home, and Bruce called 911. Hitch was later found guilty of Class A misdemeanor battery. The trial court also determined Hitch committed a crime of domestic violence. Hitch objected, saying the relationship with Bruce did not satisfy the requirements for domestic violence, but the trial court disagreed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the decision. Because of the domestic violence determination, he was not able to possess a firearm. The COA said this was punishment above the statutory maximum for misdemeanor battery and the facts supporting the enhancement were not submitted to a jury, running afoul of the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court granted transfer.

The Supreme Court said Hitch did not object at trial to the domestic violence determination as a Sixth Amendment violation, so that issue was waived.

In the decision written by Justice Robert Rucker, the Supreme Court applied the seven-factor test outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, 372 U.S. 144, 168-69 (1963), to determine the effect of the statute not allowing firearms to be owned by domestic abusers.

When applying the test, the court found three of the seven factors pointed to a punitive statute, but the seventh factor, which determined the statute is not excessive and which Rucker said is the most important, was found to be non-punitive. Therefore, the statute was non-punitive and the court did not err in giving the enhancement to Hitch.

Also, the court said the evidence was sufficient to uphold Hitch’s conviction. The statute said domestic violence includes use of physical force against a person who was or had cohabitated with the defendant as a spouse, as Bruce did, so it did not matter if the second time they cohabitated was romantic or not.

Justice Steven Massa said he agreed with the result but dissented with how the court got there, and Justice Brent Dickson joined him. Massa said he did not think the Mendoza-Martinez test needed to be applied.

“I therefore believe that applying the Mendoza-Martinez test to this Apprendi-based constitutional challenge injects unnecessary ambiguity into the court’s decision-making process at sentencing,” Massa wrote, citing Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000).

He later wrote, “Rather, this Court should endeavor to keep that Pandora’s Box closed and continue to entrust our trial courts to operate with appropriate discretion at sentencing in ordering such ‘collateral consequences’ be applied.”  

The case is Scott Hitch v. State of Indiana, 49S02-1506-CR-376.

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