Pubdate: Sun, 03 Dec 2000
Source: Journal Gazette (IN)
Copyright: 2000 Journal Gazette
Contact:  600 W. Main Street, Ft. Wayne, IN. 46802
Fax: (219) 461-8648
Author: Laura Emerson


A state appeals court ruling may change the way Allen County runs its drug 

The late April ruling effectively said judges can't accept guilty pleas and 
withhold sentencing until defendants complete certain requirements.

"You are not allowed to accept guilty pleas that may call for a dismissal," 
said St. Joseph County Superior Judge Roland Chamblee Jr., who changed the 
way he ran his county's drug court based on the decision.

St. Joseph County's drug court changed its procedure about a month after 
the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on the case. Allen County, which runs 
one of nine drug courts in the state, may follow suit by the year's end.

The crux of the issue hangs on a guilty plea.

Void from the start

Allen County's drug court, which was modeled after other programs across 
the nation, requires non-violent, controlled substance offenders to plead 
guilty to their charges before being accepted into the program. The judge 
takes their guilty pleas under advisement and withholds sentencing until 
they complete drug court.

For those who succeed, charges are dismissed. Compliance includes staying 
drug-free and employed, getting substance abuse counseling and attending 
life skills classes.

Those who fail the 12- to 18-month regimen of intensive rehabilitation and 
supervision are convicted and sentenced, based on their guilty plea.

Gary's drug court uses basically the same method.

St. Joseph County's drug court followed a similar procedure until the 
appellate court issued its April 27 decision in Lighty vs. Indiana that 
said withheld judgments are void from the start.

Now, St. Joseph County drug court participants no longer plead guilty. 
Instead, they sign an agreement saying everything in the police reports is 
accurate, waive their right to a jury trial and agree not to object to the 
introduction of search and seizure evidence at trial.

The prosecutor's office and the court agree to continue the case without a 
guilty plea until the person completes or is removed from the program.

If participants succeed, their charges are dismissed. If they fail, they 
face an abbreviated, non-jury trial based on the facts they agreed were 
true. The judge decides whether the defendants are guilty.

'Admission a big part'

Chamblee sees some drawbacks to the new procedure, especially since denial 
is one of the biggest problems with drug abuse, he said.

"Admission is a big part of the battle," Chamblee said.

A guilty plea provides some finality, and it provides the stick that 
encourages participants to succeed, he said. If they fail the program, they 
know the next step is prison, Chamblee said.

If suspects don't have to plead guilty, they may think the worst thing that 
happens to them if they fail is going back to court, he said.

Despite the drawbacks, Chamblee felt it was important to implement new 
guidelines to comply with the appellate decision.

"I don't think we had a lot of choices," Chamblee said. "Rather than be 
sorry, we decided to be safe." He has since asked a local legislator to 
seek a change in state law that would allow Indiana drug courts to use 
their original process.

Superior Judge Kenneth R. Scheibenberger, who oversees Allen County's drug 
court, said Allen County may change its procedure to ensure that people who 
fail the program don't challenge its legality.

"It doesn't become an issue until someone messes up," Scheibenberger said. 
"Then they could raise the issue that the deal was not right."

Scheibenberger said he didn't change Allen County's procedure after 
learning about the decision because an appellate judge said during a spring 
judicial seminar that the ruling likely wouldn't apply to drug courts.

"On the basis of her opinion, I didn't change anything," Scheibenberger said.

He said he's considering the change now because publicity about the 
appellate decision could cause attorneys to challenge drug court judgments 
and thus jeopardize the program.

Funding through 2001

Allen Superior judges fought hard to save drug court this fall, after 
federal grant funding fell through and County Council members said there 
wasn't enough money in the general fund to pay for it.

After a month of frantic scrambling, Scheibenberger and others cobbled 
together enough money through contributions and alcohol countermeasures 
fees to run the program through 2001.

Allen County's drug court started in early 1997 with a pilot program. It 
continued with the aid of a $400,000 federal grant received in late 1997. 
Since the program's inception, drug court has graduated more than 70 former 
drug addicts.

Robert W. Gevers II, Allen county's prosecutor, said his office is looking 
at the new proposal to make sure everything is within the letter and spirit 
of the law.

Gevers said he'd like to think the appellate ruling doesn't apply to drug 
courts, since the law is open to interpretation, but he feels it is best to 
comply with it.

It's still unclear how well the new method will work. Chamblee, the judge 
in St. Joseph County, hasn't had anyone who waived their right to a trial 
under the new rules fail the program since the new procedures were implemented.

Scheibenberger believes the trial by stipulated facts will take about as 
long as it does now for someone to enter a guilty plea. The only difference 
is that the convictions are obtained by a trial at the end instead of by a 
plea at the beginning.

"It's a change in style, not substance," Scheibenberger said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager