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Supreme Court: Rules of Evidence allowed admission of gun

June 22, 2017

In a decision reaffirming the notion that the doctrine of res gestae is defunct and is not grounds for admission of evidence, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the admission of a gun and resulting convictions in a joint Lake County resisting law enforcement and battery trial for two defendants.

After Reginald Harris refused to leave his girlfriend Summer Snow’s property, Snow called police and officer Terry Peck arrived on the scene. Peck asked Harris to get out of Snow’s car, where he had been sitting, but Harris refused, resulting in a scuffle.

During the scuffle, Harris pulled Peck into the car and began hitting him, with Snow encouraging him to beat the officer up. Peck eventually handcuffed Harris and advised Snow that if she did not stop shouting at him and go inside, she would be taken to jail for disorderly conduct.

Snow entered her home but soon returned, and a second scuffle ensued between her and Peck. The officer restrained Snow, and while he was handcuffing her, felt something hit his knee and boot and land on the ground. It was later discovered the object he felt was a gun.

Snow was charged with two counts of Level 5 felony battery against a public safety officer and one count each of Level 6 felony resisting law enforcement and Class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct. For his part, Harris was charged with Level 5 felony battery against a public safety officer and Level 6 felony resisting law enforcement.

Neither defendant was charged with a gun-related offense, and they each filed a motion in limine to stop the state from referring to the gun at their joint trial. The defendants argued because Peck learned of the gun after arresting Snow, the state was speculating about the gun’s relevance, and the danger of unfair prejudice outweighed any probative value. The state, however, said Snow may have gone into her house to get the gun, making it relevant to show “some sort of aggression.”

The Lake Superior Court denied the motion in limine, then allowed the admittance of the gun as evidence during trial over the objection of their joint counsel. Snow was found guilty of Level 5 felony battery against a public safety official and one count of Level 6 felony resisting law enforcement, while Harris was found guilty as charged.

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the admission of the gun and their convictions, finding the weapon “explained the circumstances and context of the extended verbal and physical altercations between Snow and Officer Peck.” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, writing the majority had affirmed the trial court under res gestae grounds for admissibility.

Counsel for Snow and Harris made a similar argument during oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court in April, warning the case could allow the concept of res gestae to be reintroduced into the Indiana judiciary. But in a Thursday opinion, Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote the concept of res gestae remains defunct and the admission of the gun in this situation was permissible under Indiana’s Rules of Evidence.

The chief justice also said the court disapproved of the “inextricably bound up” standard, a concept similar to res gestae, and disagreed with the state’s reliance on that standard. Similarly, the court rejected the Court of Appeals’ reasoning that the gun was admissible because it explained the “circumstances and context” of the crimes.

Rush then went on to write the trial court was within its discretion to conclude Snow’s gun tended to demonstrate an aggressive state of mind, writing the evidence allowed for the inference that Snow “could have fetched the gun while she was in her house…and that it could have emboldened her aggression.” Further, the trial court instructed the jury about when a handgun is lawfully or unlawfully carried, Rush said, so the prejudice of the gun was not outweighed by its probative value.

The high court reached the same conclusion in Harris’ case, and further rejected his argument that the gun prejudiced his right to a fair trial because it was not relevant to his charges. Harris waived that argument by raising it for the first time during oral arguments, Rush said, and also by not moving for a separate trial or request a limiting instruction.

The cases are Summer Snow v. State of Indiana, 45S03-1703-CR-169, and Reginald Harris v. State of Indiana, 45S03-1703-CR-172.

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