Supreme Court considers whether to revise ‘illegal’ sentence

The central issue the Indiana Court of Appeals identified in its decision to reverse a man’s sentence for attempted residential entry didn’t come up much during the case’s oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday.

In fact, Jacob Robinson’s counsel didn’t even raise that central issue — whether he could legally be charged as a habitual substance abuse offender when he was convicted of a non-substance offense — before the Court of Appeals. Instead, Robinson argued the trial court erred in denying his motion to continue his sentencing hearing, but the appellate court declined to address that issue and instead ruled sua sponte that his sentence was illegal.

Patrick Magrath, Robinson’s counsel, continued to pursue the question of whether the continuance was properly denied during oral arguments in Jacob O. Robinson v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00033, though he acknowledged that procedurally, he was in a tough spot. The default rule in Indiana is that where, as he, an offender is convicted pursuant to a beneficial plea agreement, the propriety of the agreement cannot be challenged, even when error is apparent on the face of a record. He also acknowledged that should the Supreme Court reverse the trial court’s sentencing ruling, the charges the state agreed to dismiss as part of the agreement could be back on the table.

Even so, Magrath told the courts that the issue of whether the habitual substance offender enhancement was proper supported his argument that Robinson’s motion for a continuance was improperly denied. Robinson was not present during his sentencing hearing because he was dealing with a real estate transaction, and the trial court judge declined to hold the hearing at a time when he could be present.

During the hearing, the prosecutor raised the issue of whether the habitual substance offender enhancement was appropriate given Robinson’s plea to attempted residential entry, but the trial court declined to address that question, as well. He did, however, hold off on sentencing Robinson on the enhancement until he was arrested pursuant to a bench warrant and brought to a second hearing later.

Had Robinson been permitted to attend his initial hearing, he could have challenged the enhancement and presented mitigating evidence in his defense, Magrath said. Further, while Magrath said there would have been no harm to the state to continue the hearing, his client suffered harm by losing his ability to allocute. 

But Tyler Banks, a deputy attorney general arguing for the state, reiterated Magrath’s own concession that traditionally, offenders cannot challenge the propriety of plea agreements when they receive a benefit. Banks also noted that Robinson did not have an intractable conflict, such as a medical emergency, that kept him from court on the morning in question.

“He had other things to,” Banks said. “That’s not sufficient.”

Banks then told the court his preferred course of action would be the dismissal of Robinson’s appeal as untimely. The appeal was not filed within 30 days of the entry of final judgment, he said, but instead was filed within 30 days of a subsequent amended judgment issued a short time later.

When asked by Justice Geoffrey Slaughter why the 30-day clock wouldn’t begin running after the entry of the amended judgment, Banks – acknowledging the technicality of his argument – said appellate rules begin the 30-day period when notice of judgment is entered into the Chronological Case Summary. Magrath, however, said parties cannot appeal a final judgment until they know the exact details of the judgment. Here, those details were not obvious until the amended judgment was handed down, he said.

Thursday’s arguments were brief, with Magrath and Banks using only a combined 23 minutes of the 40-minute period allotted to them. The full oral arguments can be viewed here.

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