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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today

In Gabino Gonzalez v. State of Indiana, a 6-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Boehm writes:

We hold that a defendant’s statements made to a victim or to the court in an effort to gain acceptance of a plea agreement by the court are statements in connection with a plea agreement and therefore are not admissible in evidence pursuant to Evidence Rule 410. In this case the defendant’s letter of apology to a victim was admitted at his trial after a plea agreement was rejected. This was error but under the facts of this case the error was harmless. * * *

Gonzalez agreed to plead guilty to criminal mischief and operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person. The trial court took the plea agreement under advisement and postponed the sentencing hearing to permit EVSC to consider whether to object to the agreement. Two weeks before the hearing, Gonzalez sent a letter to EVSC expressing his regret to all who were ―involved in the terrible accident I caused,‖ apologizing for his "irresponsible actions" and "poor decision to drink that day," and asking EVSC to show compassion to him and his family. He promised to seek alcohol counseling and asked EVSC to consider that "no one was hurt in the accident."

The court rejected the plea and the case went to trial where Gonzalez’s letter was admitted over his objection. After the court dismissed the charge of operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or more, the jury found Gonzalez guilty of the remaining charges.

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Gonzalez’s letter was inadmissible because it was written as a part of a plea negotiation and that the error "likely had a significant effect on the jury." * * *

Here, Gonzalez and the State had agreed to a proposed plea agreement. Before the agreement could be finalized, it required approval of the trial court. EVSC, as a victim of the accident, had a right to express its opinion to the court as to approval of the agreement. Gonzalez then wrote the letter in question to EVSC in an attempt to persuade it to accept the agreement. Gonzalez’s letter had "as its ultimate purpose the reduction of punishment or other favorable treatment from the State to the defendant." Gilliam, 650 N.E.2d at 49 (quoting Crandell v. State, 490 N.E.2d 377, 380 (Ind. Ct. App. 1986) trans. denied). Gonzalez’s letter was therefore a communication made in connection with his guilty plea. Accordingly, the trial court erred in admitting the letter at trial. * * *

In short, the evidence supporting Gonzalez’s conviction was overwhelming without the letter. Five witnesses—including four who had received training in identifying intoxicated individuals—testified that Gonzalez appeared to be intoxicated at the time of the accident. Gonzalez’s excessive speed and failure to yield constituted reckless driving. Gonzalez "flew" through a residential neighborhood, caused more than $25,000 in damages to the bus he struck, and endangered thirteen students, the bus driver, Gonzalez’s passenger, and other bystanders. There was essentially uncontroverted independent evidence supporting each charge, and the error in admitting his letter was therefore harmless.

Conclusion: Gonzalez’s conviction and sentence are affirmed.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 19, 2010 03:06 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions