Supreme Court rules man cannot convert felony theft conviction

A Lake County man will retain his felony theft conviction after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that an amendment to Indiana Code does not invalidate the man’s agreement to not seek misdemeanor treatment.

In State of Indiana v. Wallace Irvin Smith, III, 45S05-1611-CR-572, Wallace Smith pleaded guilty to Class D felony theft in 2000. As part of his plea agreement, Smith agreed that he would be precluded from later seeking misdemeanor treatment “in this cause.”

However, after the Indiana General Assembly amended Indiana Code 35-50-2-7 to allow sentences to be converted after they had been entered, Smith petitioned in 2015 to convert his felony conviction to a Class A misdemeanor. The trial court granted Smith’s petition, and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in August 2016, finding that “the parties could not have contemplated the term ‘misdemeanor treatment’ could mean conversion after the original sentencing.”

The state appealed, and the Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments in Smith’s case last December. The justices overturned the trial court’s grant of Smith’s petition Tuesday, with Justice Mark Massa writing for the court that the terms of Smith’s agreement preclude a sentence conversion.

Specifically, Massa wrote the terms in Smith’s agreement were unambiguous and plainly encompassed sentence conversions in the phrase “asking for Misdemeanor treatment.” Further, the justice wrote the amendment to I.C. 35-50-2-7 did not create a new type of misdemeanor treatment “because the trial court is granting precisely the same relief.”

“As such, by filing a verified petition to convert his Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor, Smith sought the very remedy he waived,” Massa wrote. “The General Assembly’s later amendment to Indiana Code section 35-50-2-7 did not alter this. Indeed, the language of Smith’s waiver, ‘in this cause,’ indicates no temporal limits as to his waiver of his sentence conversion.”

Further, Massa wrote the Legislature has not prevented waivers under 35-50-2-7, which means sentencing conversion “is thus a tool the State may use to strike a deal with defendants.” Thus, a ruling in Smith’s favor would deny the state the benefit of the plea agreement it arranged with him, the justice wrote.

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