Court of Appeals reverses convictions after due process violation

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a man’s convictions of neglect of a dependent and battery after finding that his due process rights were violated when the state withdrew its plea agreement after he had pleaded guilty.

In Justin R. Messersmith v. State of Indiana, 48A05-1511-CR-1936, Justin Messersmith was charged with felony neglect of a dependent resulting in bodily injury and felony battery on a person less than 14 years old after he shoved his 4-year-old son against a trailer. As part of a plea agreement, Messersmith pleaded guilty in February 2015 to the battery charge in exchange for the state dropping the neglect charge.

However, in March 2015, the Madison Circuit Court allowed the state to withdraw the plea agreement because it entered the agreement without first notifying the victim. At a subsequent jury trial, Messersmith was convicted on both counts.

On appeal, Messersmith argued that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the state to withdraw the plea agreement after accepting the agreement and entering its judgment of conviction. Although the state argued that Article 1, Section 13 of the Indiana Constitution establishes rights for crime victims, Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Mark Bailey noted that Article 1, Section 13 also provides that victims’ rights must yield to defendants’ constitutional rights.

Among a defendant’s right is the right to due process, Bailey wrote, and the entry of judgment following a guilty plea implicates that right. Further, Bailey wrote that in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “when a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.”

Because entry of a guilty plea implicates a defendant’s rights, Messersmith’s due process rights were violated when the trial court allowed the state to withdraw the plea agreement, Bailey wrote.

“Although Indiana law establishes important victim rights, those rights must give way to a defendant’s federal due process rights,” the judge said. “We therefore conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted the State’s request to withdraw the plea agreement.”

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