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COA splits on definition of ‘squeezed’ in burglary case

March 21, 2019

A man’s assertion that he “squeezed through” an open door without the homeowner’s permission has left an appellate panel divided over whether the man properly pleaded guilty to burglary, resulting in a split conclusion that he still used unauthorized force to gain entry. 

In 2001, David Hooker faced the bench at a change-of-plea hearing for charges of felony burglary. Hooker admitted that he had to squeeze through the door of a residence he entered, but that because it was already open, he did not push or touch it in the process.

At that time, a person breaking and entering a building or structure of another person with intent to commit a felony in it was considered to have committed Class C felony burglary under Indiana Code section 35-43-2-1. Hooker ultimately pleaded guilty to that offense, but later filed for relief, asserting the Vanderburgh Circuit Court improperly accepted an unreliable plea.

The trial court denied Hooker’s PCR request, so he appealed that decision as clearly erroneous. But a split Indiana Court of Appeals panel concluded otherwise in David Hooker v. State of Indiana,18A-PC-2318.

The majority concluded that Hooker’s equivocation at his guilty plea hearing did not amount to a denial of breaking into the residence, noting that he said nothing of which amounted to an actual denial of breaking.

“While it is well-established that ‘[w]alking through an open door does not constitute a ‘breaking’ as such element is known in the crime of burglary[,] … this is not what Hooker claimed to have done,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the majority, with Judge Elaine Brown concurring.

“Hooker admitted that he had to ‘squeeze' through an opening to enter the residence, and ‘[a] ‘breaking’ is established when even the slightest force is used to gain unauthorized entry[.],’” Bradford continued. “At most, Hooker indicated that he did not have to push the door open, which still does not take him where he needs to go. Even if we assume that the partially-open door did not move at all when Hooker squeezed through it, force was nonetheless used.”

The majority additionally noted Hooker’s multiple admissions of guilt during the hearing and his failure to deny committing actions that qualified as breaking. Thus, in finding that the trial court did not accept the guilty plea while Hooker was simultaneously maintaining his innocence, the appellate court found Hooker failed to establish the judgment was clearly erroneous.

But Judge L. Mark Bailey dissented from the majority, arguing that the minority minimized Hooker’s statements regarding his assertion that he “moved by” or “squeez[ed] through” a propped-open door.

“It seems the majority is faulting Hooker for imprecision — in that ‘squeezing’ through a doorway could have involved some force against the door or the frame,” Bailey opined in his dissent. “Thus, according to the majority, Hooker never really disputed any element. Yet, Indiana law holds trial courts — not defendants — accountable for scrutinizing guilty pleas prior to acceptance.”

Bailey further noted it was not Hooker’s responsibility to clarify his own equivocation, and that any uncertainty regarding Hooker’s definition of squeezing by the door could have clarified by the trial court or at subsequent hearings.

“Under these circumstances, the plea was unreliable as a matter of law,” Bailey wrote. “I would therefore conclude that the post-conviction court clearly erred in denying relief.”

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