In a case that defense counsel warns could allow the concept of res gestae to be reintroduced into the Indiana judiciary, the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court considered whether a gun that was not brandished during a northern Indiana altercation was relevant evidence that led to the appellants’ convictions.
During combined oral arguments for Summer Snow and Reginald Harris, attorneys Jeff Schlesinger and Kristin Mulholland, who represented Snow and Harris, respectively, told the justices that a gun belonging to Snow and found after an altercation between Snow and a police officer should not have been admitted as evidence during the combined trials that led to her conviction of battery against a public safety official and resisting law enforcement and Harris’ conviction of battery against a public safety official.
Snow, who initially called police when Harris would not leave her driveway, got into a physical altercation with Gary Police Officer Terry Peck after he responded to her call. After Harris was placed into Peck’s squad car, the officer instructed Snow to go inside her home or risk arrest for disorderly conduct. Peck then heard the door to the home open, and when Snow came back outside, a physical altercation began. Peck felt an object strike his boot, and he later discovered the object was a gun belonging to Snow that had fallen out of her sweatshirt.
Defense counsel filed a motion in limine to prohibit the state from referencing or seeking to elicit from witnesses that a weapon was found at the scene. The Lake Superior Court denied that motion and a subsequent objection, finding that the weapon was “part of the entire incident.” A divided Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the gun explained the “circumstances and context” of Snow’s altercation with Peck.
Deputy Attorney General Katherine Cooper, who argued on behalf of the state, made a similar argument on Thursday, telling the justices that the presence of the gun helped to illustrate Snow’s state of mind during her encounter with Peck – that is, she acted aggressively toward the police officer and was likely the initial instigator of the altercation. Thus, the evidence of the gun was highly probative, Cooper said.
But Schlesinger and Mulholland told the court any probative value the gun had was far outweighed by the prejudice it caused. Although having a gun on your person is not necessarily illegal, Schlesinger said the knowledge that Snow was in possession of a gun during the altercation was highly prejudicial because it could have made her appear more dangerous to the jury.
Additionally, Schlesinger said the Court of Appeals’ finding that the gun explained the “circumstances and context” of the situation was an attempt to revive res gestae, or the concept that evidence could be “inextricably bound up” in a case. The court previously struck down the doctrine of res gestae in Swanson v. State, 666 N.E.2d 397 (Ind. 1996).
Counsel for Snow and Harris further argued that the gun was not relevant to any of the counts with which their clients were charged, but Cooper disagreed, saying the presence of the gun had a tendency to show that Snow was acting in an aggressive manner toward Peck.
Justice Robert Rucker asked Cooper how the presence of the gun factored into the elements of a battery against a public safety official or resisting law enforcement charge. Cooper conceded that while the gun was not an element of the charges against Snow, its admission as evidence was relevant because it helped the jury understand her state of mind.
Asked by Justice Mark Massa if a decision in the state’s favor might allow “the genie of res gestae out of bottle,” Cooper said no and noted that the gun was present at the time of the commission of the crime, not just before or after the altercation. Additionally, she said the Court of Appeals had analyzed the case under the proper precedent laid out after Swanson.
But Schlesinger said the gun would have only been relevant if Snow had brandished and attempted to use it against Peck. Additionally, Mulholland told the justices that the gun fell out of Snow’s sweatshirt and was discovered well after Harris had been arrested and placed in the squad car, so it had no bearing on his case at all, even though they were tried together. Although he did not request a separate trial, Mulholland said Harris still had a constitutional right to a fair trial that did not use evidence of the gun against him.
Full oral arguments in Summer Snow v. State of Indiana and Reginal Harris v. State of Indiana, 45S03-1703-CR-00169 and -00172, can be watched here.