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Man’s impersonation of public servant conviction upheld

May 16, 2019

A man who used a false name while wearing a sheriff’s jacket couldn’t convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that there wasn’t enough evidence to support his conviction for impersonating a public servant.

Steve Ferree, a former special deputy of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Office, entered a regional behavioral health system center in February 2017 wearing a jacket with the VCSO logo on the front and the word, “Sheriff” on the back.

Ferree spoke with Marybeth Dougherty, executive director of the center, and identified himself as “John Wilson” with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, requesting assistance for an inmate at the Vigo County Jail. When asked for identification, Ferree left and never returned, prompting the director to call the police due to his suspicious behavior.

Ferree was subsequently charged and found guilty of Level 6 felony impersonation of a public servant.

On appeal, Ferree did not contest using a false name or wearing the misleading jacket, but rather argued that Dougherty did not testify Ferree identified himself as a law enforcement officer as required by Indiana Code § 35-44.1-2-6 (2016).

Specifically, he pointed out that she made conflicting statements on direct examination, during cross examination and on redirect.  Dougherty first testified that Ferree said his name was “John Wilson,” but later stated that Ferree said he was “a deputy with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department.” She ultimately admitted on redirect that she could not remember whether Ferree said he was a “deputy with the Sheriff’s Office” or “with the Sheriff’s Office.”

Those confusions, Ferree contended, confirmed there was insufficient evidence to prove he presented himself as a deputy sheriff and not just an employee of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Office.

The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed in Steve Ferree v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2327, finding there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction.

“The only reasonable interpretation of the totality of the evidence — Ferree’s appearance; his request, which was commonly made by a law enforcement officer; the fact he gave a false name; and Dougherty’s testimony that he identified himself as a deputy — is that Ferree impersonated a law enforcement officer,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the unanimous court.

Additionally, the appellate panel found that the prosecutor did not engage in misconduct in misrepresenting the law to the jury when he said that “Ferree’s statement to Dougherty that he was ‘with’ the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department was sufficient to prove he falsely represented that he was a ‘law enforcement officer.’”

Ferree took the statement out of context, the panel noted, and that when put into proper context, the statement was permissible and not misconduct.

Lastly, the appellate court concluded that the trial court did not commit fundamental error when it failed to sua sponte include a jury instruction regarding the statutory definition of law enforcement officer. It thus affirmed the trial court’s decision.

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