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Supreme Court hears criminal gang enhancement case

March 22, 2018

After his criminal gang enhancement was vacated on appeal, a Vanderburgh County man’s sentence for various armed robbery charges reduced from 60 to 30 years. Now, the state is arguing the trial court should have discretion to resentence the defendant in accordance with his crimes, but the defendant claims no such discretion exists.

The Indiana Supreme Court grappled with those conflicting theories during oral argument Thursday in Marquell Jackson v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-113. The case began when Marquell Jackson was convicted on multiple counts in a botched armed robbery scheme and was sentenced to 30 years, plus a 30-year criminal gang enhancement. The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the enhancement due to fundamental error in the charging language, but ruled on rehearing that the trial court did not have authority to resentence Jackson in light of the vacated enhancement.

Matthew McGovern, Jackson’s counsel, agreed with the appellate court’s instructions on remand, telling the Supreme Court on Thursday that criminal gang enhancements are treated as individual sentences. Whereas habitual offender enhancements attach to an underlying felony to create a single, enhanced sentence, a criminal gang enhancement stands on its own, McGovern said. That means none of Jackson’s other convictions or sentences were affected by the vacated enhancement, making the convictions unavailable for resentencing.

McGovern found support for his argument in Coble v. State II, 523 N.E.2d 228 (Ind. 1988), which allowed a trial court to resentence a defendant on a conviction that was affected by a vacated habitual offender enhancement. All other unaffected sentences, however, were final and not subject to change, McGovern said.

But Justin Roebel, arguing for the state, told the justices that Indiana’s sentencing scheme has changed since the 1988 Coble II decision through the adoption of Appellate Rule 7(b) and the ruling in Anglemyer v. State, 686 N.E.2d 482, 490-491 (Ind. 2007),  among other statutory amendments. Today, sentencing decisions are made by looking at sentences as a package, Roebel said, which means trial courts should be allowed to resentence defendants on remand by looking at the sentencing package as a whole.

Here, that would mean allowing the Vanderburgh Circuit Court to resentence Jackson on remand in a way that would ensure he would serve 60 years, or a sentence that’s appropriately tailored to his crime. Upholding Jackson’s 30-year sentence would be inappropriate considering the nature of his crimes, Roebel said, including the fact that he helped plan the robbery and was one of the alleged gunmen who shot five people.

To that end, the state advocated for the adoption of the federal sentence packaging doctrine, which aligns with Roebel’s argument that sentences in multi-count convictions are viewed as a whole. Indiana’s sentencing practices already align with that theory, Roebel said, and the legislature has implicitly given its support to that practice by not altering state statute in such a way that would end the packaging method.

But McGovern presented a different reading of Indiana law, noting that state statute discusses sentences in terms of individual convictions. In contrast, some of the states that have adopted the federal packaging doctrine have statutory sentencing schemes that call for bundled sentencing decisions, he said.

Justice Steven David, however, told McGovern he had reservations about accepting his view on standalone enhancements such as criminal gang enhancements. If a judge knows that a lighter sentence could be imposed if a defendant successfully has such an enhancement overturned, then the judge might be inclined to impose tougher sentences initially, the justice said. In response, McGovern re-emphasized his point that courts’ sentencing authority comes from statutes, so the legislature would have to act to guard against the hypothetical David proposed.

Turning his argument on its head, David posited that the packaging doctrine could lead to trial court sloppiness, either on the part of counsel or the judge. But Roebel disagreed, once again noting that trial courts already tend to look at the big picture when making sentencing decisions.

Oral arguments in Jackson’s case can be viewed here.

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