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Court grants habeas writ in case involving repealed drug statute

August 15, 2016

A man convicted of Class A felony possession of three grams of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a “youth program center” in March 2008 will either be released from prison or resentenced after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals granted his habeas corpus petition.

Walker Whatley was arrested at his home on a warrant, and during a search, the officer discovered a bag with more than three grams of cocaine in Whatley’s pocket. That offense would be a Class C felony normally, but because he was within 1,000 feet of a “youth program center” under I.C. 35-48-4-6, his charge was elevated to a Class A felony. He was within 800 feet of Robinson Community Church, which held programs throughout the month for people under the age of 18, but most were religious-based. The church did host a Girl Scout troop twice a month on Wednesdays. The pastor of the church at the time noted no youth programs occurred on Thursdays, the day Whatley was arrested. There was also no signage to alert someone of the youth programs.

If sentenced under the Class C felony, he faced a range of two to eight years; under the Class A felony, he faced a sentence of 20 to 50 years. The trial court sentenced Whatley to 35 years.

The statute at issue involving “youth program center” has since been repealed.

Whatley appealed and was victorious in the Court of Appeals, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed in a 3-2 decision in 2010. He was unsuccessful in his state post-conviction relief attempts, and then turned to the federal courts. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied his petition for habeas relief, declining to address his claims on the merits after holding he defaulted the claim.

Whatley argued that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, and the 7th Circuit agreed, finding issues with the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The court’s analysis pointed to no objective criteria for a reasonable person to determine whether a particular facility qualified under the statute – that is, to determine whether a facility hosted youth programs on a regular versus an irregular basis – and instead delegated to the defendant or the facility itself the determination of whether its youth programs were held on a regular basis,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote. “This circular analysis of a subjective and standardless term was both incorrect and unreasonable under Supreme Court precedent that requires criminal statutes to be based on discernable standards.”

The 7th Circuit also ruled that the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that fair notice is not required for strict-liability statutes is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent that requires fair notice for all criminal statutes.

“The lack of an intent element in the statute does not cure the vagueness problem; it makes it worse by making unknowing defendants absolutely liable for violating an indeterminate standard,” she wrote.

The 7th Circuit concluded that under Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 97-98 (2011) and Brady v. Pfister, 711 F.3d 818, 824-25 (7th Cir. 2013), nothing in the record of the state courts supports the outcome of the case. The appellate judges found the courts’ reasoning to be unreasonable.

“Had Whatley possessed drugs within 1000 feet of a YMCA or a Boys and Girls Club, there would be no doubt that his conduct was within the core of the law. The State conceded in its argument to the Indiana Supreme Court that churches are not inherently places where children gather, and a handful of weekly events does nothing to provide fair notice or to discourage arbitrary enforcement of the statute,” Rovner wrote in Walker Whatley v. Dushan Zatecky, superintendent, 14-2534.

The 7th Circuit reversed the denial of his petition and remanded with instructions to grant the writ ordering that, within 60 days, Whatley either be released or he resentenced under the Class C felony statute. If he is resentenced, he should be given credit for the time served under the Class A felony conviction.
 

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