Justices: 2015 habitual offender law set 10-year limit for past low-level felonies

December 22, 2017

The 2015 version of Indiana’s habitual offender statute requires an offender to have been released from all lower-level felonies within 10 years to establish a habitual offender enhancement, the Indiana Supreme Court. Justices reversed a trial court that overruled a reversal of a defendant’s objection to his habitual offender charges.

In Matthew L. Johnson v. State of Indiana, 32S05-1707-CR-469, Matthew Johnson was charged in two separate causes in 2015. The first including seven felonies ranging from Level 2 to Level 6, and the second alleged three felonies, one as a Level 4 and two as a Level 6. The state also filed identical habitual offender allegations in each cause, alleging Johnson was a habitual offender under Indiana Code section 35-50-2-8(d) based on Class D felony convictions he had in 2001, 2006, 2007 and 2009.

Johnson objected to the habitual offender allegations on the grounds that each of his underlying low-level offenses had to meet the 10-year requirement in subsection 8(d)(2) of the statute. The Hendricks Superior Court overruled the objection, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in April. The court determined convictions an offender was released from more than 10 years earlier did not count for habitual purposes, but those from less than 10 years ago do.

The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with Johnson’s interpretation of the statute in a Thursday opinion, with Justice Mark Massa writing the language of the statute – which holds that not more than 10 years can have “elapsed between the time the person was released” from a low-level felony “and the time the person committed the current offense” – is unambiguous. Thus, the statute holds that if a person has committed an unrelated prior lower-level felony, no more than 10 years cannot have passed since the offender was released for that felony and the current offense for habitual charges to apply, Massa wrote.

“The indefinite article ‘a’ is defined as ‘a) one; one sort of…b) each; any one,’” Massa wrote. “Therefore, applying a plain reading to the statute, ‘a’ refers to prior unrelated lower-level felonies used to establish the enhancement under subsection 8(d)(1), and requires that ‘one,’ ‘each,’ or ‘any one’ of the prior unrelated lower-level felonies meet the 10-year requirement.”

Massa then went on to write the Court of Appeals was “largely correct” in its interpretation of subsection 8(d) to require low-level convictions to fall within the 10-year timeframe, but the high court parted ways with that analysis as it related to more serious felonies. Those felonies do not have to occur within 10 years of the current offense, the Supreme Court ruled.

“Instead, we find that the plain meaning of the 2015 version of subsection 8(d) requires that each lower-level felony – namely a Level 5, Level 6, Class C, or Class D felony – the State uses to establish subsection 8(d)(1) must meet the ten-year requirement found in subsection 8(d)(2),” he said.

Thus, the overruling of Johnson’s objection was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

In a footnote to Thursday’s opinion, Massa also noted that section 8(d) has since been amended to require the 10-year timeframe for at least one of the three prior unrelated felonies required to support a habitual offender enhancement.


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