Trial court violated South Bend man’s constitutional rights by excluding him from trial, COA rules

The St. Joseph Superior Court violated the constitutional rights of a South Bend man when it excluded him from his jury trial after failing multiple pretrial drug tests, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Carlton Lee Wells v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-612, the COA found the trial court violated both Carlton Wells’ Sixth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution and his rights under Article 1, Section 13 of the Indiana Constitution. The appellate court reversed and remanded with instructions to vacate his conviction due to fundamental error.

In March 2018, the St. Joseph Circuit Court issued an order for protection prohibiting Wells from contacting KenQuis Crawford. Two months after the order was signed, a South Bend Police Department patrolman investigated an alleged violation at Crawford’s apartment complex, where the patrolman saw Wells in a white vehicle outside the complex. The officer followed Wells before he accelerated at a high rate of speed and briefly went out of sight.

While the patrolman pursued Wells, a Starke County Sheriff’s Department off-duty reserve officer saw a vehicle of a similar description blow through a stop sign nearby and witnessed a baggie thrown out the driver’s side window. South Bend officers conducted a traffic stop while the Starke County officer delivered the baggie to the South Bend officers and told them he believed it was cocaine.

The state eventually charged Wells with possession of cocaine, a Level 6 felony, and Class A misdemeanor invasion of privacy.

At the outset of Wells’ initial jury trial setting in September 2020, the court was advised Wells was “being very contentious with [his counsel]” and the clerk’s office believed Wells was impaired by drugs or alcohol. The court ordered Wells to submit to drug testing, which found Wells was engaging in “high new use” of marijuana. Thus, the jury was sent home and Wells was put on pretrial supervision.

At the time, St. Joseph Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller said, “And I’ll have you tested on the morning your [sic] trial when we next have it, and if you are positive, we’ll go forward with the trial without you. You’ll have waived your right to be present by continuing to use drugs while you’re on bond.”

But in October 2020, on the morning of Wells’ rescheduled trial, he again tested positive for THC. The trial court then stated, “Now, we’re going to call the jury in in five minutes. I want everyone understanding where we are which is, I’m going to order that Mr. Wells be tried in absentia. I have no caselaw, I think I’m right, obviously, but I have no caselaw. This never came up in all the time I’ve been in the Criminal Justice System and with Mr. Wells’ understanding, he’s not going to be able to be here to see what happens.”

The trial court excused Wells from the proceedings and, without objection from Wells’ counsel, conducted the jury trial in absentia.  The jury elected to deliberate that evening, and the proceedings were completed in a single day, finding Wells not guilty of possession of cocaine but guilty of invasion of privacy. He was sentenced to 180 days on home detention.

On appeal, Wells argued that by trying him in absentia, the trial court violated his right to be present at trial under both the Sixth Amendment and Article 1, Section 13. He maintained the trial court “could have continued the trial and taken [him] into custody for violating [court] orders and ma[d]e sure he would not use [marijuana] before trial,” but instead “denied his ability to be present and participate at trial[.]”

The COA agreed on both allegations, pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337 (1970), as well as the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Vaughn v. State, 971 N.E.2d 63 (2012), in its decision.

“The trial court here did not employ available measures to protect Wells’ fundamental right to be present,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote in the opinion for the COA. “Less stringent remedies, rather than automatic ejectment, were available to the trial court that should have been employed before the trial court excluded Wells from his trial.”

The COA concluded Wells carried his burden of establishing that his exclusion from trial “blatantly violated basic and elementary principles, involved substantial potential for harm, and effectuated a denial of fundamental due process.”

“The trial court here failed to employ less severe measures to ensure an orderly courtroom,” Tavitas wrote. “Furthermore, the trial court failed to identify Wells’ behavior that would indicate that Wells did not have the ability to behave on the day of his trial. Even if Wells exhibited disruptive behavior, as the above-cited cases have pointed out, several options were available to encourage obedience. The all-or-nothing approach is difficult to uphold.”

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