Split COA affirms attempted obstruction of justice conviction in neighbor dispute

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A majority of an Indiana Court of Appeals panel has affirmed a woman’s attempted obstruction of justice conviction after she confronted a neighbor who was subpoenaed to give deposition in a criminal case involving her.

When Darren Collins’ neighbor Jennifer Cook was involved in a court proceeding stemming from a dispute with another neighbor because of noise coming from Cook’s home, Collins was subpoenaed to provide a deposition for the trial. He had previously called police and made reports complaining about the noise.

In April 2018, Cook confronted Collins at his home, asserting that he was suing her and asking why he “was doing this.” Cook allegedly told Collins that he “needed to consider what was going on and take this opportunity to bow out of the proceedings so that . . . [he] wouldn’t be further involved and . . . that [he] wouldn’t lose anything in the end.” She also allegedly told him that he “could stand to lose everything, and that [he] would wind up with nothing.”

The conversation left Collins a “nervous wreck” and prompted him to make a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. Cook was then charged with, among other things, Level 6 felonies attempted obstruction of justice and intimidation for her encounter with Collins.

Although the charges of intimidation were dismissed, the trial court found Cook guilty of attempted obstruction of justice and sentenced her to one year suspended to probation.

She appealed, arguing that the state failed to prove threat or coercion regarding a specific official proceeding or investigation because the content of the communication between Collins and Cook was unclear. But a split Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in Jennifer Cook v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-2225, with the majority disagreeing with a dissenting judge’s opinion that characterized the statements made by Cook to Collins as a standard conversation between neighbors.

“Based upon the record, we conclude the State presented evidence of probative value from which the trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Cook committed attempted obstruction of justice as a level 6 felony,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the majority, joined by Judge Patricia Riley.

Additionally, the majority noted that the state did not allege Cook provided a false statement and that she did not specifically suggest what is ambiguous about the obstruction of justice statute. It thus could not say that the rule of lenity required reversal.

Judge John Baker dissented from the majority in a separate opinion, finding insufficient evidence to support the conviction and arguing that the majority’s stance “ventures into questionable territory.”

“Though I do not question the constitutionality of the obstruction of
justice statute, I note that we must evaluate these types of statutes with greater scrutiny, as they can chill ordinary speech between private individuals,” Baker opined. “And in my opinion, this colloquy between Cook and Collins amounts to a standard conversation between neighbors, plain and simple.”

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