Drug offender to get new sentencing hearing after trial court sentencing error

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An Indiana man had his rights infringed upon when a trial court denied his request to be physically present during his sentencing hearing, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed.

In February 2020, a probation officer did a compliance check on James Louis Warren at his house in Kokomo.

When searching Warren’s bedroom, the probation officer found two loaded handguns and some cash in Warren’s nightstand drawer. Another officer who assisted found baggies of suspected drugs, including a crystal-like substance, a plant-like material, a white substance and a brown substance in an adjacent bedroom.

The probation officer had Warren and Brandon Wilson, who was also in the house, go into the living room after calling for assistance. Multiple officers from the Kokomo Police Department’s drug task force responded to the scene.

A field test of the crystal-like substance tested positive for methamphetamine. Officers then conducted a test on the brown substance but obtained a “vague field test[.]”

After being granted a search warrant, the officers questioned Warren about the items found in his house. Warren claimed responsibility and acknowledged that everything in the house belonged to him.

Upon executing the search warrant, the officers found two digital scales in a kitchen drawer, an orange powder in a prescription bottle that had Warren’s name on it and more than 800 empty foil packages that could be used to package spice.

Testing by Indiana State Police later confirmed that the crystal-like substance was methamphetamine and revealed that it weighed 28 grams. Testing of the orange powder that was in the pill bottle found it to be 5-FLUORO-MDMB, a controlled substance, and the tests for the remaining substances revealed they were noncontrolled substances.

Ultimately, the state charged Warren with Level 2 felony dealing in meth, Level 3 felony possession of meth, Level 6 felony possession of a controlled substance while in possession of a firearm and Level 6 felony maintaining a common nuisance.

During the state’s closing argument during a three-day trial in 2020, the prosecutor argued Warren’s possession with intent to deal the meth had been shown by the amount of meth, which was worth $700, the two sets of scales and the guns.

Aside from Warren’s intent to deal, the state also argued that the mass quantity of damiana leaves and nicotinamide found in his house showed he could have manufactured spice to then place in the more than 800 empty foil packages and sell. The prosecutor’s discussion of the manufacturing and dealing evidence occurred in relation to the maintaining-a-common-nuisance charge.

The jury subsequently found Warren guilty as charged.

In December 2020, Warren filed a request to be physically present in the courtroom for the upcoming sentencing hearing. The Howard Superior Court denied Warren’s request, although it did not issue an order with findings.

The trial court held a remote sentencing hearing on Jan. 8, 2021.Warren’s counsel and the prosecutor appeared via a Zoom. Additionally, Warren had eight character witnesses who appeared via Zoom and who provided character testimony during the sentencing hearing. Warren also submitted multiple letters of support.

The trial court imposed a 17½-year sentence, with 12½ years executed and five years suspended to probation for Warren’s dealing in meth conviction; a two-year sentence for his possession of controlled substance while in possession of a firearm conviction; and a two-year sentence for his maintaining-a-common-nuisance conviction.

On appeal, Warren argued that photographs of the noncontrolled substances, testimony by an officer regarding the value of spice, and the officer’s testimony that he thought the brown substance was heroin shouldn’t have been admitted; and that the trial court erred in not allowing him to be physically present at sentencing.

The COA found that any error in the admission of the testimony was harmless and that the photographic exhibits weren’t an abuse of discretion.

However, the COA did find that Warren never waived his right to be physically present at his sentencing hearing and the trial court erred in denying him the opportunity.

“… (U)nder Administrative Rule 14 or under our supreme court’s May 2020 Covid-19 Order, a trial court could conduct a remote sentencing hearing only where a defendant waived his right to be physically present in the courtroom for the hearing,” COA Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote. “Here, the record before us reveals that Warren did not waive, in writing or otherwise, his right to be present at his sentencing hearing.

“Instead, Warren filed a written motion, asserting his desire to exercise his right to be physically present in the courtroom for his sentencing hearing,” Pyle continued. “The trial court, however, denied Warren’s motion without an order or findings. Instead, it merely stamped ‘DENIED’ on Warren’s motion.”

The COA thus vacated the sentencing order and remanded for a new sentencing.

The case is James Louis Warren v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-247.

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