Bill to allow summonses, not arrests, for misdemeanors advances

A bill that proponents say would show legislative leadership in efforts to end jail overcrowding by issuing summonses to appear to misdemeanor defendants has advanced out of an Indiana House committee.

The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee unanimously sent House Bill 1076 to the full House of Representatives after a Wednesday meeting.

Rep. Cherrish Pryor, the Indianapolis Democrat who authored HB 1076, said the idea for the bill came from a conversation with Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears. Under the legislation, an officer could issue a summons to people who commit misdemeanors in the officer’s presence, with the requirement that they appear in court within seven days.

The original language of the bill would have required officers to issue the summons and would have required defendants to appear within in two days. But Pryor amended the language to say officers “may” issue a summons, giving them discretion, and she extended the time to seven days to allow defendants to make professional and childcare arrangements.

Mears, addressing the committee Jan. 15, said there are both humanitarian and pragmatic benefits to issuing summonses to appear. From a humanitarian standpoint, Mears said misdemeanor defendants would not have to endure the disruption of an arrest, which can lead to jail time, loss of income and possible loss of employment. And from a pragmatic perspective, law enforcement would not have to expend resources to arrest and process low-level, low-risk offenders.

Mears gave the example of a person who steals from a Walmart store. “Is it worth our resources to have an officer standing at Walmart, waiting for the jail wagon?” the prosecutor said.

The bill does carve out some exceptions that would still require an arrest for a misdemeanor.

New language in Indiana Code § 35-33-4-1(f) would prohibit officers from issuing a summons to a person who has committed “a violent misdemeanor offense that involves a victim or a weapon” or “an offense involving the impaired operation of a motor vehicle,” or to a person who “poses a safety risk to the person, the officer, or the public” or “has falsely identified the person to the officer.”

Also, under a new I.C. 35-33-4-1(g), officers are not required to issue a summons when a person is subject to arrest for another offense; has violated the terms of supervised release; or has an outstanding arrest warrant.

The original language of I.C. 35-33-4-1(f) already provides that “in lieu of arresting a person who has allegedly committed a misdemeanor (other than a traffic misdemeanor) in his presence, a law enforcement officer may issue a summons and promise to appear.” The substance of that language remains unchanged under HB 1076.

Given the existing language, Rep. John Young, R-Franklin, asked Mears why law enforcement hasn’t adopted the issuance of summonses as policy. Mears said Marion County is working in that direction.

Further, the prosecutor said the prevalence of jail overcrowding points to the need for legislative leadership in support of issuing summonses for misdemeanors. He pointed to the recently released report from the Jail Overcrowding Task Force, which recommends that “Criminal Justice stakeholders should reduce reliance on arrest warrants for non-violent offenders … by developing cite and release procedures … .”

On the defense side, Marion County Chief Public Defender Robert Hill and Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, likewise gave their support to HB 1076.

Hill testified to the benefit the legislation would have on low-income Hoosiers who can’t post bail. And, in response to a question from committee chair Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, about the risk of failures to appear, Corley said the Office of Court Services’ use of text message reminders sent to defendants in advance of court hearings has reduced FTAs.

Other supporters included Mitzi Wilson of the Marion County Re-Entry Coalition, Katie Blair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Reginald Roney of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and David Sklar of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

But Dave Powell, who is currently senior counsel with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said IPAC had “real concerns” with the legislation. Though IPAC on Jan. 15 had not taken an official position on the bill, Powell — formerly IPAC’s executive director — raised the issue of a young officer arriving at a tense scene and having to discern whether a misdemeanor was “violent” or whether the alleged offender is a “safety risk.”

If those judgments are later challenged by defense counsel, Powell said, the officer could be faced with a false arrest lawsuit.

A spokesman for IPAC declined to comment when asked whether the council had taken a position on HB 1076 since the Jan. 15 meeting.

All testimony was heard on Jan. 15, so Wednesday’s meeting was amend-and-vote only. The bill passed 12-0.

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