Change to habitual offender statute does not violate state constitution, COA rules

A defendant challenging his habitual offender status based on a change to state statute did not persuade the Court of Appeals of Indiana, which found the Legislature’s move to limit the jury’s role did not infringe on any constitutional rights.

Christopher Harris was found guilty of Level 3 felony robbery while armed with a deadly weapon and Level 5 felony battery with a deadly weapon after a bench trial in Marion Superior Court. A jury trial was then conducted to determine whether Harris was a habitual offender.

The parties stipulated that Harris had two prior, unrelated felony convictions: one for robbery in 2002 and one for unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon in 2013. The prosecution rested on that stipulation.

Harris then took the stand, and when his attorney asked him if there was “anything going on in (his) life,” the state objected that the answer would not be relevant. The trial court agreed but allowed Harris to make an offer of proof outside the presence of the jury.

Harris explained he had been diagnosed with PTSD and had been having trouble with his medications. Also, he maintained he had no part in the robbery that led to his 2002 conviction.

When the jurors returned, they found Harris to be a habitual offender.

Harris appealed, arguing the limitation of his testimony during the habitual-offender proceeding violated Article 1, Section 19 of the Indiana Constitution.

Although the Court of Appeals noted Harris waived his constitutional claim for appeal because he did not raise it in the trial court, the panel found his claim failed on the merits.

Article 1, Section 19 provides, “In all criminal proceedings whatever, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts.” The Indiana Supreme Court addressed that provision twice in connection with the habitual offender statute.

In Seay v. State, 698 N.E. 2d 732 (Ind. 1998), the justices found Article 1, Section 19 gives the jury the discretion to find the defendant is not a habitual offender even if that individual has the requisite prior felony convictions. Three years later in Hollowell v. State, 753 N.E.2d 612 (Ind. 2001), the Supreme Court held evidence regarding the defendant’s convictions, beyond the mere fact of the convictions, is admissible because it is relevant to the jury’s exercising of its discretion under Seay.

However, after the rulings in Seay and Hollowell, the Indiana General Assembly amended the habitual offender statute, Indiana Code § 35-50-2-8(h).

No longer were juries allowed to decide whether a defendant was a habitual offender. Instead, they were tasked with solely determining whether the defendant has “been convicted of the unrelated felonies.”

If the jury finds the defendant has prior felony convictions, the habitual-offender status is automatic.

Harris argued the amended statute did not impact his constitutional claim. That provision enables juries to “determine the law” and, Harris asserted, the Legislature cannot infringe upon a right by statute.

The Court of Appeals was not convinced.

“But again, Article 1, Section 19 applies during habitual-offender proceedings only because the legislature has provided for a jury role in those proceedings,” Vaidik wrote for the court in Christopher Harris v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-1315. “And because the legislature could eliminate the jury’s role entirely without violating Article 1, Section 19, it can limit the jury’s role without violating Article 1, Section 19.

“It has done so in the current version of the habitual-offender statute,” Vaidik wrote, “providing that the only decision the jury makes is whether the defendant has the requisite prior convictions.”

As for the habitual offender enhancement added to Harris’ sentences, the COA remanded with instructions to correct the sentencing documents to show that the enhancement specifically attaches to his 12-year sentence for robbery, for a total sentence of 27 years on that count.

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