Supreme Court affirms trial court’s denial of bail modification for teen

Upholding the trial court’s refusal to reduce the bond or grant conditional release to a teenager connected to a home invasion, the Indiana Supreme Court has also chided the Court of Appeals of Indiana for reversing the trial court and issuing a ruling that required the teen to be released immediately.

As a teenager, Sierra DeWees drove three men to the home of 67-year-old Irving Mullins in Brazil, Indiana, on the belief that marijuana and cash were stashed at the residence. The break-in resulted in an exchange of gunfire, which injured one of the accomplices.

Police eventually located DeWees and the three men. She was charged with aiding, inducing or causing burglary with a deadly weapon, a Level 2 felony.

Using the Indiana Risk Assessment System’s Pretrial Assessment Tool, Clay County Court Services assessed DeWees for pretrial release and rated her at a moderate risk of rearrest and failure to appear at future court hearings.

The Clay Superior Court subsequently denied her motion to reduce her $50,000 bond. Acknowledging DeWees’ strong family ties and lack of criminal record, the trial court was swayed by the “extremely serious” nature of the crime and Mullins’ testimony that he lived in fear since the break-in.

However, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed in DeWees v. State, 163 N.E.3d 357, 366, 367 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021). The appellate panel ordered her to be released to pretrial electronic home detention with GPS monitoring.

The Indiana Supreme Court accepted the case and unanimously affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding the state met its burden of showing DeWees posed a flight risk and a risk to Mullins’ personal safety.

Yet the justices were clear: Their ruling did not affect DeWees’ conditional release. Instead, if either party wanted to modify her release, then the trial court would have to conduct a hearing consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion in this case.

The 17-page opinion closely examined bail reform efforts, specifically looking at Criminal Rule 26 and the Indiana General Assembly’s codification of that rule. In short, the Supreme Court concluded the statutory reforms enhance, rather than restrict, the trial court’s discretion when determining bail.

Indiana Code § 35-33-8-3.8 mandates that a trial court consider the results of the IRAS, but the statute does not compel that the defendant be released or require the trial court to use the IRAS assessment in setting bail, the Supreme Court noted. Indeed, the Legislature encouraged trial courts to incorporate other information that is relevant in the bail determination.

In Sierra M. DeWees v. State of Indiana, 21S-CR-410, the justices did not find any abuse of discretion.

The evidence showed the teen was involved in an armed home invasion and the victim continued to fear for his safety. The trial court did not rely on Mullins’ statement alone but also looked at the nature of the offense.

“If convicted, DeWees’ actions make her just as responsible for the offense as any of her accomplices,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote, citing I.C. § 35-41-2-4. “… And even if she remained in the car while the crime took place, she knew that Mullins faced potential harm — if not death — when her accomplices exited the vehicle and entered the home armed with a shotgun.”

Also, the evidence supported the trial court’s position that DeWees posed a flight risk.

“In sum, the evidence, taken together, supports the trial court’s conclusion that DeWees posed a ‘substantial flight risk’ and a ‘danger to others,’ including Mullins,” Goff wrote. “What’s more, the trial court’s decision — factoring in the applicable statutory factors, setting forth its reasons in writing, and issued after a timely hearing at which DeWees, represented by counsel, testified on her own behalf — rested on appropriate procedural safeguards necessary to protect the rights of the accused.”

Finally, the Supreme Court admonished the Court of Appeals for issuing an opinion that required DeWees to be released immediately. Even while an individual’s liberty is at stake in a bail decision and deviating from Appellate Rule 65(E) may be justified, the justices urged “prudence and restraint” when deviating from the rule.

“… (W)e’ve recognized that a blind or mechanical application of the rules threatens to elevate these technicalities to ‘the position of being the ends instead of the means,’” Goff wrote, citing Am. States Ins. Co. v. State ex rel. Jennings, 258 Ind. 637, 640, 283 N.E.2d 529, 531 (1972). “But the opposite is likewise true, as frequent deviation from the rules presents the risk of ‘defeat[ing] justice.’

“This is especially true in developing areas of the law like we’re presented with today,” he concluded. “Issuing an opinion ‘effective immediately,’ and before the parties had the opportunity to seek rehearing, potentially deprived this Court of further briefing on the merits.”

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