COVID restrictions didn’t lead to violation of public trial in robbery case, COA rules

A man who stole a Jeep after threatening the vehicle’s owner with a hatchet did not have his right to a public trial violated due to restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

Dustin Lappin was convicted of Level 3 felony robbery resulting in bodily injury following an incident where he stole a man’s vehicle after brandishing a rusted hatchet.

The story began with Lappin’s communications with Geoffrey Wilson, with whom he became Facebook friends and chatted for several months before meeting in person. The second time they met, the men drove around in Wilson’s Jeep before stopping at a parking lot in the Mars Hill neighborhood.

Wilson decided to return home after talking for a couple of hours in the vehicle, but when Lappin asked him to stop in another parking lot, things got ugly. Lappin turned off the car and took the keys, pulled out a foot-long hatchet with a rusted blade from between the passenger seat and the vehicle’s center console and ordered Wilson to get out.

Wilson began screaming for help, and a struggle ensued between the men that resulted in Lappin pushing Wilson into the front seat of the Jeep and fleeing into a tree line at the edge of the parking lot with the keys. Lappin came back wielding a two-by-four piece of lumber, entered the Jeep and started to leave.

A bystander trying to stop Lappin grabbed the door of the vehicle but got his hand stuck and fell to the ground, injuring his hand and knee. The abandoned vehicle was found in Plainfield, and Lappin was apprehended soon thereafter.

Lappin’s jury trial, held during the COVID-19 pandemic, was not conducted in Marion Superior Court 3’s normal courtroom but was moved to Marion County Traffic Court for social distancing purposes. The trial court was able to stream audio and video into the building’s lobby and also provided a livestream on the internet. Chairs were secured in the back of the courtroom, with appropriate social distancing, for members of the public who wished to attend the hearing, except during voir dire.

Lappin objected to the voir dire being streamed to the lobby as audio only and the limited public attendance during the hearing, but the trial court overruled him. The jury found Lappin guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to 12 years, with four years suspended.

Members of an Indiana Court of Appeals panel upheld Lappin’s conviction, finding the trial court did not violate his right to a public trial.

The COA found that in light of Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 46, 104 S.Ct. 2210, 2215, 81 L.Ed.2d 31 (1984), the trial court’s limitation on attendance during voir dire was reasonable considering the “nearly unprecedented global pandemic” and thus did not constitute reversible error.

“Here, the trial court was faced with a global health pandemic and while the privacy concern at stake — the revelation of personal matters in a criminal trial — remained the same as in (Press-Enterprise Co. v. Supreme Court of Cal., 404 U.S. 501, 512-13, 104 S.Ct.819, 825-26, 78 L.Ed.2d 629 (1984)), the trial court did not take the drastic measure of closing the courtroom. Instead, the trial court followed the Supreme Court’s order and provided a live stream of the venire selection,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the appellate panel. “However, to protect the privacy of the venire panel and to strike a balance between this competing privacy concern and Lappin’s right to a public trial, the trial court limited the live stream to audio only.”

The panel also found that while access to the courtroom was limited to four spectators due to COVID-19 restrictions, the trial court was open to the public and no person was turned away.

As such, the appellate court concluded Lappin failed to establish that his right to a public trial was denied in Dustin Lappin v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-2208.

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