COA rules against gun range owners despite officials’ failure to take oaths

Though certain Jefferson County officials failed to take their oaths of office, that failure does not invalidate the officials’ zoning complaint against a local couple, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

In May 2016, the Jefferson County Planning Commission filed a zoning complaint against Joseph and Sherry Chapo and Deputy Big Shot LLC, alleging the Chapos were violating a zoning ordinance by maintaining a shooting range on their property. The Jefferson Circuit Court entered a preliminary injunction against the Chapos in January 2017, and the following October the Chapos were held in contempt of the injunction for continuing to operate the shooting range.

The Chapos had also filed an interlocutory appeal, and the Court of Appeals in May 2018 affirmed the injunction in a memorandum decision. The Supreme Court denied transfer, so the case proceeded and the Chapos moved for judgment on the pleadings in February 2019.

The following April, however, the Chapos discovered the members of the Planning Commission had not taken and filed their oaths of office. Thus, the defendants moved for relief from judgment, arguing the commissioners had violated Indiana Code § 5-4-1-1, had made their offices vacant and lacked standing to file the original suit.

The trial court denied the motion for relief, and the Court of Appeals again affirmed the trial court on appeal from the Chapos.

Judge Nancy Vaidik, writing Friday for the unanimous appellate panel, agreed with the Chapos that I.C. 5-4-1-1 required the commissioners to take and file an oath of office. However, applying the three-pronged test under Carty v. State, 421 N.E.2d 1151, 1154 (Ind. Ct. App. 1981), Vaidik wrote that their failure to take the oath did not invalidate their actions

“The JCPC members each claimed the offices on the date of their appointment. … They thereafter possessed the offices,” Vaidik wrote. “Each performed the duties of a JCPC member by publicly attending meetings, voting on issues, and holding themselves out as members of the JCPC. … And the JCPC members had color of title.

“… And notably, the Chapos make no argument the JCPC members here were not properly appointed. … As such, they had an apparent right to the offices,” the judge continued. “… Accordingly, we conclude that they were acting as de facto officers when the lawsuit against the Chapos was filed.

“… The JCPC members were required to take and file the oath set out in Section 5-4-1-1,” Vaidik concluded. “However, invalidating the actions of the JCPC based on this technical defect would undermine the exact purpose of the de facto officer doctrine – ‘to insure the orderly functioning of the government despite technical defects in title to office.’ … We therefore affirm the trial court’s denial of the Chapos’ motion for relief from judgment.”

The case is Joseph Chapo, Sherry Chapo and Deputy Big Shot, LLC v. Jefferson County Plan Commission, 20A-CT-1197.

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