Unruly defendant rightly tossed from court, COA rules

A Montgomery County man thrown out of his own trial for disruptive conduct has failed to convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that he was wrongly denied his right to be present. But the appellate panel did vacate one of the man’s convictions on double jeopardy grounds.

In Michael A. Johnston, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2478, police were called to Michael Johnston and Shameka Howard’s Crawfordsville home after a neighbor heard screaming and witnessed Johnston shoving and swinging at Howard and throwing heavy objects at a vehicle his children were sitting in. One officer arrived at the home and smelled alcohol on Johnston and noticed he had slurred speech.

Johnston was taken to a hospital to determine if he was fit for incarceration, but he refused to cooperate and heaped “verbal abuse” on police officers. Once inside the hospital, law enforcement had to hold Johnston down on a gurney while he thrashed around and yelled profanities.

Johnston was eventually charged with seven counts, including domestic battery, attempted domestic battery, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement. But he refused to appear at his initial hearing and eventually forced law enforcement to carry him out of the courthouse.

Then at the outset of his trial, Johnston claimed to have been hearing voices and insisted he had signed a plea agreement. The Montgomery Superior Court informed him that he had entered a plea earlier but had withdrawn from it, but Johnston repeatedly told the court, “I don’t even know what’s going on.” He also told the court he was high, and eventually the judge removed him from the courtroom, saying she did not believe he was “suddenly incompetent.”

Johnston returned to court the next day but asked to be removed upon seeing his children in the courtroom. He was later found guilty of all counts except public intoxication and attempted domestic battery, and he received an aggregate enhanced sentence of six-and-a-half years.

Johnston raised several arguments on appeal, claiming first that he was improperly removed from the courtroom. But the Court of Appeals rejected that argument, with Judge Elaine Brown writing the circumstances of the case — including Johnston’s outbursts and his feigned incompetence undercut by his participation in jury selection — supported the trial court’s decision to remove him.

The court likewise rejected Johnston’s argument that his sentence was inappropriate, even though he received the maximum sentence, 2½ years, for his domestic battery conviction. Brown pointed to testimony and evidence showing Johnston’s violence toward Howard and the children, his erratic behavior at the hospital and his criminal history, including drug charges and family battery, to support the sentence.

But the court did vacate one of Johnston’s two convictions of Class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct, agreeing that the “act of violence” and property damage underscoring that conviction also underscored his domestic battery and criminal mischief convictions.

“During closing argument, the prosecutor did not delineate which acts related to each specific count,” Brown wrote. “The charging information and jury instructions also did not specify that the acts alleged under Count IV were different from those alleged in Counts I or II.” 

The case was, thus, remanded for entry of an amended abstract of judgment and amended sentencing order, though Brown noted in a footnote that the vacated conviction would not change Johnston’s aggregate sentence.

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