Justices split on whether unruly defendants must be told they can return to court if they behave

A split Indiana Supreme Court has denied transfer in a case involving an unruly defendant, disagreeing on whether trial courts are required to inform disruptive individuals who have been removed from the courtroom that they can reclaim their right to be present if they behave.

The debate centers on Latuwan Anthony Partee v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-01529.

In the case, so-called sovereign citizen Latuwan Partee ranted and raved in the courtroom after being denied his request to represent himself by the Marion Superior Court. As a result, Partee was removed from the courtroom on multiple occasions in both pretrial conferences and during trial when he refused to comply with the trial court’s orders to behave.

A jury ultimately convicted Partee of Level 2 felony dealing in cocaine and Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The Court of Appeals of Indiana held that Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 227, 228, 90 S. Ct. 1057 (1970), showed that the court did not “explicitly require” the defendant to be advised he can return if he settles down. Instead, it found that precedent provides that a trial court can remove an unruly defendant “until he promises to conduct himself properly.”

On petition to transfer, Justices Mark Massa, Geoffrey Slaughter and Christopher Goff voted to deny transfer in a Friday order. However, Justice Steven David dissented in a separate opinion and voted to hear the case, joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush.

In dissent, David disagreed with the COA’s conclusion that Allen doesn’t require trial courts to inform disruptive defendants who have been removed from the courtroom that they can reclaim their right to be present.

He pointed out that two required elements must be met under Allen: first, the defendant must be warned by the judge that he will be removed if he continues his disruptive behavior; and second, the defendant must be informed that he may return to the courtroom when he agrees to conduct himself properly.

“Here, though Partee was warned of his impending removal, he was never told how he could earn his right to return to the courtroom,” David wrote in dissent.  “Accordingly, I would grant transfer to provide needed guidance to our trial courts, which all too often must navigate proceedings involving disruptive, vexatious and outright abusive litigants.”

The dissenting justice noted that although he found the appellate court’s decision to remove Partee from the courtroom to be “more than warranted under the circumstances,” its failure to ensure that Partee was informed on how – or that – he could reclaim the right to be present rendered the process “constitutionally inadequate and constitutes fundamental error.”

David added that courts “should not presume that criminal defendants are aware of the precise scope of their constitutional rights—such as when and how their right to be present at their own trial may be forfeited and reclaimed.”

“And under the constructive-notice approach championed by the State and approved by the Court of Appeals, it is unclear how defendants like Partee may communicate their willingness to behave when they are neither brought back before the court nor informed by counsel that they can reclaim their right to be present,” David wrote.

“I agree with the Court of Appeals that the trial court should be commended for its restraint and patience in dealing with a defendant as difficult as Partee. But a defendant’s unruliness does not excuse trial courts from the obligation to follow the law, nor do defendants irrevocably forfeit their constitutional right to be present at trial when they engage in disruptive behavior,” he concluded. “I would find that the lack of any advisement here constitutes fundamental error, and therefore dissent from the denial of transfer.”

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