COA reinstates kidnapping case, says trial court erred in dismissing charging information

A man accused of kidnapping and confining his girlfriend must face felony charges after the Court of Appeals of Indiana reinstated the case against him, finding the trial court misapplied the law in dismissing the charging information.

The case of State of Indiana v. Tobias N. Smith, 21A-CR-1475, began in October 2020 when Lauren Stamper asked the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a welfare check on her sister, A.B. According to Stamper, A.B. had recently ended an abusive relationship with Tobias Smith and had been living with Stamper but had returned to her own home on the day in question to retrieve property.

Officers were dispatched to A.B.’s residence, where they observed that the garage door was open, as was the door leading to the side yard. Inside, officers found a broken glass container with liquid on the floor of the living room.

Law enforcement tried to call both A.B. and Smith, but neither answered their cellphones. A.B.’s phone went straight to voicemail.

The officers then requested and received pinging data that showed Smith’s phone was moving near New Goshen. Knowing that his parents lived in LaPorte, they officers asked the LaPorte County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a welfare check for A.B. at that residence.

When they arrived, LaPorte County officers found A.B. in the living room of the home where Smith’s parents lived. She told law enforcement she did not want to be in the home, and she became emotional and began recalling a history of domestic violence, saying she was afraid of Smith.

However, A.B. also told officers she didn’t want Smith to get into trouble, so she said she’d claim she “went willingly.” But when her cellphone was retrieved from Smith’s vehicle, she sent texts to her aunt indicating that Smith had taken her from her home against her will.

Smith was subsequently charged with felony counts of burglary, kidnapping and criminal confinement. At an initial hearing, A.B. testified that she had given Smith a key to her home and claimed she was not afraid of him.

Smith responded with a motion to dismiss the information based on insufficient evidence. A.B. again testified that Smith had not broken into her home or taken her against her will.

The Vigo Superior Court ultimately granted Smith’s motion to dismiss, but the Court of Appeals reinstated the charges in a Tuesday opinion.

“The dismissal was premised upon the trial court’s conclusion that the State could not prove its case because of A.B.’s apparent intent to provide exculpatory testimony at trial,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote. “However, ‘[a] pretrial motion to dismiss directed to the insufficiency of the evidence is improper, and a trial court errs when it grants such a motion.’ State v. Helton, 837 N.E.2d 1040, 1041 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005).”

Looking to State v. Fettig, 884 N.E.2d 341, 345 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), and its examination of Indiana Code § 35-34-1-8, Bailey acknowledged that the Legislature “’has granted our trial courts a certain level of discretion to determine factual issues when considering motions to dismiss informations.’” But, he added, “trial court discretion does not extend to usurping the function of the jury.”

“Finally, we observe that there is not a total absence of evidence of criminality here,” Bailey wrote, pointing to the discovery of A.B. three hours from her home, her conflicting statements and the broken glass found in her home, among other things. Thus, the appellate panel determined the trial court misapplied the law in granting the motion to dismiss.

The case was remanded with instructions to reinstate the charges against Smith.

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