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Appellate court rejects constitutional challenge to synthetic drug lookalike statutes

March 2, 2018

The Indiana Court of Appeals has struck down a constitutional challenge to the state’s synthetic drug lookalike statutes, finding the statutes cannot be considered void as applied to a Tippecanoe County drug case.

In November 2016, Lafayette Police Officer Matthew Meeks attempted to stop a vehicle driven by Tracy VanWienen for failure to have a license plate, but VanWienen continued to drive for four blocks. As she was driving, Meeks could see her passenger, later identified as Gary Yoakum, making “furtive” movements. Spice was later discovered in the vehicle and on Yoakum’s pants, and a glass pipe found in the vehicle tested positive for methamphetamine.

Yoakum was then arrested and charged with Class A misdemeanor possession of a synthetic drug or synthetic drug lookalike substance and Class C misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia. Yoakum testified at trial that the drugs belonged to VanWienen, not him, but a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 365 days for the Class A misdemeanor and 60 days for the Class C misdemeanor.

Yoakum appealed in Gary W. Yoakum v. State of Indiana, 79A02-1706-CR-1309, arguing Indiana’s synthetic drug lookalike statutes — Indiana Code section 35-48-4-11.5 and 35-31.5-2-321.5 — are unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. However, Yoakum failed to raise his constitutional challenge to the Tippecanoe Superior Court, so Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Michael Barnes wrote in a Friday opinion that the issue was waived.

Waiver notwithstanding, Barnes said the statutes are not unconstitutionally void because the issue here was whether the drugs belonged to Yoakum or VanWienen. Thus, Yoakum’s argument that the statutes do not give sufficient notice of what constitutes a synthetic drug lookalike was not relevant to the inquiry, so the statutes are not void for vagueness in his case.

Yoakum also argued there was insufficient evidence to sustain his Class A misdemeanor conviction, claiming there was no scientific testing to prove the substance found in the vehicle was a synthetic drug lookalike. But the appellate court rejected that argument considering trial testimony that officers smelled spice in the vehicle and a statement from Yoakum’s own attorney confirming the substance was spice.

Finally, Yoakum challenged his one-year sentence as inappropriate, but the appellate court upheld the sentence in the Friday opinion. Acknowledging that Yoakum’s offense was not “egregious,” Barnes nevertheless pointed to his extensive criminal history to support his sentence.

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