Justices considering definition of ‘place of detention’

There is a central question underlying a drug conviction case now under consideration by the Indiana Supreme Court: what is a “place of detention” under Indiana Evidence Rule 617? Once they answer that question, the justices will be able to decide whether a Grant County man’s heroin convictions must be thrown out.

The high court heard different interpretations of that definition Tuesday during oral arguments in the case of Aaron Fansler v. State of Indiana, 27S02-1710-CR-00672. The case began when Grant County law enforcement lured Aaron Fansler to a local hotel under the guise of wanting to purchase heroin from him, then arrested him in a hotel room after he arrived.

While in the hotel room, Fansler told the officers where they could find the heroin he had brought with him. When they later discovered additional drugs he had not disclosed, Fansler said he had kept those drugs a secret because he did not want to get caught with them.

Those two statements formed the basis of Fansler’s appeal, in which he argued they should have been thrown out because they were not electronically recorded pursuant to Rule 617. The Grant Circuit Court allowed the statements, leading to Fansler’s convictions on various misdemeanor and felony drug charges and his 13-year sentence, with 10 years executed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, agreed with Fansler that the statements should not have been admitted because the hotel room was considered a “place of detention” and his statements were not made as part of routine booking, yet there was no electronic recording. However, considering the other evidence against Fansler, the appellate court upheld his convictions and found the admissions to be harmless error.

Fansler’s attorney, Evan Hammond, revisited the issue of what a “place of detention” is during oral arguments under Rule 617, which defines that term as “a jail, law enforcement agency station house, or any other stationary or mobile building owned or operated by a law enforcement agency… .”

In this case, the fact that Grant County law enforcement had previously used the hotel as its central hub for sting operations and were lying in wait for Fansler in the hotel room qualified the room to fall under the Rule 617 definition, Hammond said. Thus, the statements were erroneously admitted, he said.

But Angela Sanchez, counsel for the state, said a location could only be considered a place of detention if it was the “functional equivalent” or a jailhouse. That would mean any location where law enforcement officials routinely bring people for questioning as part of a criminal investigation, Sanchez said.

Such places are typically equipped in advance with the necessary recording equipment, Sanchez said. Because the hotel room did not meet those qualification, the room was not a place of detention, so Fansler’s incriminating statements were properly admitted, she said.

The justices continually wrestled with what standards must be met for a location to qualify as a place of detention, asking counsel for both parties to answer that question in regard to hypothetical locations and urging them to put forth their own ideas of the standards.

For his part, Hammond advocated for a broad interpretation of the definition, telling the justices that under the facts of Fansler’s situation – including the fact that law enforcement had been planning the sting – the room qualified. He also noted that due to their preparation, law enforcement had time to set up recording equipment in the room.

Sanchez, however, repeatedly returned to her point that only places routinely used for interrogation could qualify. She also noted that if the justices wanted to expand Rule 617 in the way Hammond advocated, then it should be done through the rule-making process.

The state’s counsel also said the officers’ questions for Fansler in the hotel room where simply about the whereabouts of the drugs, rather than being part of a formal investigation. But Hammond posited the opposite theory, telling the court that the nature of the officers’ questions was investigatory, not informative.

The full oral arguments in the case can be watched here.

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