Divided Supreme Court reverses habitual offender enhancement

December 22, 2017

A divided Indiana Supreme Court reversed a man’s habitual offender enhancement Thursday after determining his two prior Illinois convictions were statutorily considered Level 6 felonies, thus disqualifying the enhancement. The dissenting justice, however, found ambiguity in the statutes at issue.

After breaking into and burglarizing a Fort Wayne home, Darryl Calvin was arrested and charged with Level 4 felony burglary. The state also alleged he was a habitual offender based on two prior Illinois convictions for Class 1 felony residential burglary.

A jury found Calvin guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to six years for the burglary, plus an additional 10 years for the habitual offender enhancement. The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Calvin’s conviction, agreeing with the state that Calvin’s appellate argument — that Indiana treats all out-of-state felonies as Level 6 felonies, two of which cannot support a habitual offender enhancement — would lead to absurd results.

But the Indiana Supreme Court reversed Calvin’s habitual offender enhancement Thursday in Darryl Calvin v. State of Indiana, 02S03-1709-CR-611. Chief Justice Loretta Rush, writing for the majority of a 4-1 court, said under Indiana Code section 35-50-2-1(a) (2014), the definition of a Level 6 felony includes convictions “in any other jurisdiction at any time, with respect to which the convicted person might have been imprisoned for more than one (1) year.”

Further, I.C. 35-50-2-8(b) (Supp. 2016) allows for a habitual offender enhancement if an offender has two prior unrelated felonies, one of which cannot be a Level 6 or Class D felony. Thus, the plain reading of those two statutes together means Calvin’s two Illinois convictions cannot qualify him as a habitual offender, Rush wrote.

The majority then went on to reject the state’s absurdity claim, with Rush writing a “trifecta of cases dating back to 1991” support the court’s current reading of the habitual offender statute. Those cases are Rowold v. State, Cain v. State, and Johnson v. State.

Additionally, invoking the absurdity doctrine would “expand criminal liability beyond the habitual-offender statutes’ long-settled plain meaning,” which would conflict with the principles of separation of powers and the narrow construction of criminal statutes, the chief justice wrote.

“To be clear, we are not abolishing the absurdity doctrine, which we have consistently applied since the early days of our 1851 Constitution,” Rush wrote, noting that the outcome of the plain reading of the statutes is “peculiar.” “This case, though, falls outside the doctrine’s boundaries.”

The case was remanded for a retrial on the enhancement, but Justice Mark Massa dissented, writing separately that a recognition of ambiguity in the statute in question would “allow for a more common-sense construction of the statute.”

“Here the legislature used the traditional line of demarcation between felonies and misdemeanors — imprisonment for at least a year — to define low-level felonies from other states, which otherwise might use a different nomenclature of class or level, too varied to be included by specific reference,” Massa wrote. “This doesn’t mean they meant all out-of-state felonies are Level 6s, regardless of severity.”

“They certainly could have been more precise in their drafting,” Massa continued, “but their imprecision does not dictate this windfall for serious habitual offenders who built their records victimizing people in other states.”

But in a footnote to the majority opinion, Rush wrote that even if the majority agreed the statutes are ambiguous, they “could not ignore the rule of lenity’s decree that ambiguity ‘must be resolved against the penalty.’”


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