On August 28, 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court made a significant decision for those who are charged with driving while an habitual traffic violator (“HTV”).
For decades, Indiana courts have considered driving while a HTV to be a status offense. As the Indiana Supreme Court stated in State v. Starks, 816 N.E.2d 32 (Ind. 2004), the act of driving while knowing that your license is suspended is the crime. The underlying crimes don’t matter. Even if one of the underlying offenses that led to that status was later vacated, courts would not void the later conviction for driving while a HTV. This position was backed by the Court’s decision in White v. State, 497 N.E.2d 893 (Ind. 1986), which held that a harmless procedural error was not enough to invalidate a guilty plea.
Yesterday’s decision in State v. Oney, 49S05-1212-CR-00668 (opinion issued 8/28/2013), opened the door for having some HTV convictions vacated, despite the “status offense” rationale of Starks and like cases. In Oney, the defendant was convicted of OWI in 1986, 1989, and 1993. As a result of these three convictions, he was determined to be a HTV, and his driver’s license was suspended for 10 years. He was arrested for OWI again in 1999, and pled guilty to driving while a HTV, which led to a lifetime license suspension.
Oney sought to have his 1989 conviction vacated because the judge coerced him into pleading guilty while he still maintained his innocence. The trial court granted his post-conviction relief petition. Without this conviction, he would not have been a HTV in 1999. Oney next sought to vacate his conviction for driving while a HTV based upon his successful PCR on one of the underlying offenses. The trial court in that case granted the petition. The Court of Appeals then reversed the trial court’s decision, upholding the rule of Starks.
The Indiana Supreme Court in its recent decision distinguished Oney’s case from Starks. The Court decided that the reason for Oney’s 1989 conviction being vacated was not a mere procedural technicality, but rather a substantive issue related to the defendant’s guilt or innocence of the actual offense. Specifically, Oney entered a guilty plea while maintaining his innocence. Without a sufficient factual basis for the guilty plea, the Court decided that the plea could not be accepted and any subsequent convictions for driving while a HTV that depended on that first conviction were also voidable.
The circumstances of Oney were unusual, but the Indiana Supreme Court has created a new argument for avoiding a driving while a HTV conviction and the lifetime license suspension that goes with it, provided, where possible, the practitioner structures his PCR arguments in terms of substantive, rather than procedural, error.