Justices vacate ex-trustee’s theft convictions because state didn’t prove criminal intent

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Concerns about a former trustee accused of theft because she worked out-of-state during COVID should have been handled via a civil action, not a criminal action, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled, vacating the ex-trustee’s 21 theft convictions.

The trustee at issue was Jennifer Teising, who was elected trustee of West Lafayette’s Wabash Township in November 2018 and took office the following January for a four-year term. At the time, she owned a house in Wabash Township on Princess Drive.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Teising sold her house, moving some of her things into her mother’s home in Vincennes and the rest into her ex‐boyfriend’s home on Knox Drive in Wabash Township. She also changed both her BMV and voter registration address to the Knox Drive address, and she bought a truck and recreational travel trailer.

Even though Teising began to use the Knox Drive home as her personal address, cellphone records reflect that she rarely stayed there. From June 17, 2020, through March 19, 2021, she spent only 27 overnights there and seven overnights at another address in Lafayette.

She spent the other 241 days traveling the country on trips to Minnesota, Colorado and Florida. She also visited other cities in Indiana.

Throughout her travels, Teising continued working remotely as trustee. Her office manager, Tricia Fultz, kept the office open and continued working there in person.

Teising maintained she was complying with the requirements of her office while working remotely.

But in November 2020, Teising was informed that township residents and elected officials had begun to express concerns about her residency.

A grand jury ultimately indicted Teising on 21 counts of theft. The indictment alleged that Teising no longer resided within Wabash Township, so she forfeited her office and the right to continue collecting her salary. Thus, the 21 paychecks she collected after she allegedly moved away constituted theft.

Teising filed pretrial motions for a change of venue and the appointment of a special prosecutor, but the Tippecanoe Superior Court denied both motions. A bench trial was held in December 2021, after which the trial court found her guilty as charged and sentenced her to 1,095 days, with 847 days suspended, leaving 124 days to be served in the Tippecanoe County Jail and 124 days to be served in community corrections.

Teising appealed her convictions, which the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed.

The state then petitioned the high court for transfer, which was granted in Thursday’s opinion.

Before the justices, Teising argued that the court should vacate her convictions because she never stopped residing within Wabash Township and, therefore, never forfeited office.

But Justice Derek Molter wrote that they did not need to decide the constitutional residency question because they agreed with her second point: that even if she did forfeit her office, the state’s remedy was to remove her from office through a civil quo warranto action, not to convict her of theft.

“… (E)ven if we assume Teising stopped residing in the township and therefore forfeited her office as a matter of law (questions we do not decide), the State didn’t prove Teising knew she forfeited her office, nor, more importantly, that she knew her paychecks had become ill‐gotten gains,” Molter wrote. “And without knowing she wasn’t supposed to be receiving the paychecks, Teising could not have had the necessary criminal intent.

“… Since the State had no evidence Teising believed the money she received wasn’t rightfully hers,” he concluded, “the only available remedies were civil.”

All justices concurred in Jennifer R. Teising v. State of Indiana, 24S‐CR‐55.

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