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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

You Have My Letter: Supreme Court Of Indiana Finds Letter Written To Victim Improperly Admitted Against Defendant Under Rule 410

Somewhat similar to its federal counterpart, Indiana Rule of Evidence 410 provides in relevant part that

Evidence of a plea of guilty or admission of the charge which was later withdrawn, or a plea of nolo contendere, or of an offer so to plead to the crime charged or any other crime, or of statements made in connection with any of the foregoing withdrawn pleas or offers, is not admissible in any civil or criminal action, case or proceeding against the person who made the plea or offer.

So, is a letter of apology written by the defendant to the victim inadmissible under this Rule? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Indiana in Gonzalez v. State, 2010 WL 1988134 (Ind. 2010), the answer is "yes" if the letter was written as part of the plea bargaining process.

In Gonzalez,

A truck driven by Gabino Gonzalez failed to yield at an intersection and struck a school bus operated by Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation ("EVSC")....Gonzalez was charged with criminal mischief, operating a vehicle while intoxicated, operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or more, and operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person.

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.

After Gonzalez was convicted, he appealed, claiming that his letter was inadmissible under Indiana Rule of Evidence 410, and the Court of Appeals of Indiana agreed and reversed, prompting the state's appeal to the Supreme Court of Indiana. The Supreme Court of Indiana agreed with the Court of Appeals that the letter should have been deemed inadmissible because, under Indiana law, a proposed "plea agreement must...be shown to the victim, who has a right to comment on the crime and the proposed sentence;" moreover, "[i]n the course of this process, the defendant may make statements to the victim...." Therefore, according to the Indiana Supremes, "[t]hese statements are within the language of...Evidence Rule 410 ("in connection with" a plea agreement)."  

In reaching this conclusion, the court clarified exactly when Indiana Rule of Evidence 410 applies:

Accordingly, we hold that for a statement to be a privileged communication, the defendant must have been charged with a crime at the time of the statement and the prosecutor and the defendant must have initiated discussions related to a plea agreement. Second, the statement must have been made with the intent of seeking a plea agreement or in contemplation of a proposed agreement. Third, the statement is privileged if made to someone who has the authority to enter into or approve a binding plea agreement or who has a right to object to or reject the agreement.

(The court, however, deemed the admission of the letter to be harmless error and affirmed Gonzalez's conviction).

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/05/410--gonzalez-v-state----ne2d------2010-wl-1988134ind2010.html

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