An order that a Delaware County man serve nearly 17 years in the Department of Correction following technical probation violations has been reversed, with the Indiana Court of Appeals remanding for a resentencing not based on “imprecise” evidence.
In Ronnie L. Brown v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-1550, appellant-defendant Ronnie Brown was sentenced in December 2016 to an aggregate 20 years on convictions of cocaine dealing and marijuana possession. Then in March 2018, the Delaware Circuit Court agreed to suspend the remainder of Brown’s sentence if he successfully completed three years of supervised probation.
Two years later, the state moved to revoke Brown’s probation. In addition to not attending appointments with his probation officer since September 2018, the state alleged he was arrested in August and December 2019 for traffic violations, then again in March 2020 for possessing cocaine and marijuana, resisting law enforcement and obstruction of justice.
The March 2020 charges were related to an incident where Brown was stopped around midnight for driving with no headlights. However, because those charges in Cause F5-31 were pending at the time the probation revocation case was proceeding, the state agreed to “not get into” the facts of that case, which was listed in the revocation petition as Count 4.
Brown’s probation officer testified that he had “lost track” of Brown in September 2018, though the officer also noted that Brown reported to a second officer in 2019. Ultimately, the court found that Brown violated the conditions of his probation “as enumerated” and ordered that he serve the remaining 16 years and 205 days of his sentence in the Department of Correction.
In a Friday reversal, Judge Edward Najam wrote that the state’s evidence on the allegation that Brown missed appointments with his probation officer was “imprecise.” Specifically, the officer testified that Brown had made up some of his appointments, though he didn’t know which ones, and that his office may not have kept all records of calls Brown made to the probation office.
What’s more, Najam wrote, Brown presented evidence that the traffic charges stemming from his 2019 arrests were dismissed without an adverse finding against him. And because the trial court held that the facts of Cause F5-31 “were irrelevant to the petition for revocation … ,” the state did not present evidence of the commission of a new offense related to that allegation.
“In sum, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion when it revoked Brown’s probation for having missed an undetermined number of appointments with his probation officer. But we conclude that the court abused its discretion when it ordered Brown to serve the entire remaining term of sixteen years and 205 days in the Department of Correction as a result of those technical violations,” Najam wrote, referencing Heaton v. State, 984 N.E.2d at 618 (Ind. 2013).
“… We are mindful that the trial court previously granted Brown’s motion to modify his original sentence, and we do not mean to suggest that Brown has clean hands and is without fault,” Najam continued. “Nonetheless, while probation is a matter of grace and not a right, we are obliged to reverse the trial court’s order that Brown serve his entire remaining suspended sentence.
“We remand to the trial court with instructions that the court resentence Brown in a manner commensurate with the severity of missed appointments with his probation officer, the only violation the State established on this record.”