Katie Stancombe for www.theindianalawyer.com
A habitual offender convicted of resisting law enforcement could not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals on Tuesday that a trial court’s error in admitting hearsay evidence in his case made a fair trial impossible.
When signaled to stop driving by a Hancock County deputy in May 2017, James Baker instead accelerated and drove off at high speed. Not long after the deputy ceased pursuit of Baker’s vehicle for safety reasons, Baker erratically drove through an intersection, crashed into a median, and fled the scene on foot. Witnesses pointed officers in the direction Baker was headed.
Once found by Officer Keven Stickford and his K-9, Baker was placed in handcuffs and taken into custody. Stickford, over objection, later testified that he saw and heard another officer ask Baker “why he ran.” Stickford further testified that Baker responded, “because he was scared.”
Baker was subsequently convicted by a jury of Level 6 felony resisting law enforcement and Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended. He waived his right a jury trial for his habitual offender enhancement, and the court determined he was a habitual offender.
On appeal, Baker argued the Hancock Superior Court erred when it allowed Stickford to testify about the unnamed officer’s question, contending Stickford’s description was inadmissible hearsay.
The appellate court found that the unnamed officer’s question was offered for “the truth of the matter asserted” and should not have been admitted into evidence under Powell v. State, 714 N.E.2d 624, 627 (Ind. 1999).
“In this case, Officer Stickford testified that he observed and heard an unidentified officer ask Baker, ‘why he ran.’ That question, like the ‘classic example’ discussed in the Powell case, contains a factual utterance that is capable of being proven true or false, specifically that Baker ran away,” Senior Judge Carr Darden wrote.
Although considered hearsay, the appellate court noted that the admission of the description was ultimately a harmless error that did not contribute to the jury’s verdict. It found witness testimony confirmed that there was sufficient independent evidence to prove Baker was guilty.
Additionally, the appellate court denied Baker’s argument that the admission violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses because the unnamed officer was not brought to court to testify.
“Even if Baker had not waived his Sixth Amendment claim, and even if admission of the question violated Baker’s right to confront witnesses, such violations ‘do not require reversal if the State can show beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict,’” Darden continued.
In his final argument, Baker contended that the trial court erred in allowing Stickford to testify about Baker’s response to the question of why he ran.
The appellate court found the trial court erred in admitting Baker’s answer to the question before he was read his Miranda rights, but extensive eyewitness testimony clearly established his guilt regardless.
“We cannot conclude herein that admission of Baker’s answer to the officer’s question, although in error, was so egregious as to render a fair trial impossible,” Darden concluded, affirming Baker’s convictions in James Wade Baker, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 30A01-1710-CR-2511.