COA modifies delinquent adjudication to lesser offense

A teenage boy who threw a rock through a woman’s car window will retain his adjudication as a delinquent child, but the majority of the Indiana Court of Appeals ordered Friday that the evidence requires his adjudication to be based on a lesser offense.

In T.H. v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1703-JV-518, T.H.’s mother saw her son throw a brick through a window of Maria Castro’s car in July 2016 and called the police, resulting in her son being arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center. The state then filed a delinquency petition against T.H., alleging he had committed what would be Class A misdemeanor criminal mischief if committed by an adult, by causing than $750 in damages to Castro’s car.

During a fact-finding hearing, Castro testified that a dealership had replaced the glass on her window, but she did not know where the repairs had taken place or how much they cost. The Marion Superior Court ultimately adjudicated T.H. as a delinquent for the Class A misdemeanor offense that caused more than $750 in damages.

In a Friday appellate opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed T.H.’s adjudication, but a majority of the panel reversed the finding that he had committed more than $750 in damages.

Specifically, Judge Melissa May, writing for the majority joined by Judge Michael Barnes, noted the estimate Castro submitted to the prosecutor – which showed roughly $2,500 in damages – was dated five months before T.H.’s act and incorrectly listed the dealership’s name and the vehicle identification number, among other inconsistencies. T.H.’s counsel addressed these inconsistencies during his cross-examination of Castro, May said.

“The Exhibit here was rife with error, at best, and likely fraudulent,” May wrote. “… It simply was not credible evidence of Castro’s alleged damages. As a result, we hold that the State failed to prove the $750 in damages required to support a true finding of criminal mischief as a Class A misdemeanor if committed by an adult.”

Instead, the majority remanded the case for the court to modify its records to show T.H. has been adjudicated for committing what would be Class B misdemeanor criminal mischief. But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Cale Bradford wrote that in its role as the trier-of-fact, the juvenile court chose whether to believe the evidence and decided the state met its burden of proving the existence of more than $750 in damages.

“When the sole focus is on the amount and quality of the estimate, we are distracted from our appellate review of the ultimate question, which is whether the evidence is sufficient to show damages of at least $750,” Bradford wrote. “Given the documentary evidence coupled with Castro’s testimony, I would conclude that the evidence is easily sufficient to sustain the juvenile court’s adjudication.”

May pointed to the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Love v. State, 73 N.E. 3d 693, 699-700 (Ind. 2017), in which the court wrote that when “video evidence indisputably contradicts the trial court’s findings, relying on such evidence and reversing the trial court’s findings do not constitute reweighing.”

That ruling provided a “narrow failsafe” for cases with video evidence, May said, and “(l)ike video evidence, documents submitted as exhibits are capable of being reviewed de novo by an appellate court.” But in a footnote to his dissent, Bradford said he would not expand the holding in Love to apply to the instant case.

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