VAIDIK, Chief Judge.
At the time of the crime in this case, burglary was generally a Class C felony but was a Class B felony if the building or structure was a "dwelling." The State charged Joshua Howell with Class B felony burglary for breaking into a house just hours after the sole occupant was found dead inside. We find that it is reasonable to construe "dwelling" to include buildings and structures that have been occupied in the immediate past by a recently deceased resident. This is because even after the sole occupant of a house dies, it is common and expected for people still to be at the house. To find otherwise would reduce the criminality of burglars who target houses where the sole occupant has recently died. Further, the fact that the house was ordered vacated by the county health department just hours before Howell broke in does not impact whether it was a dwelling for purposes of our burglary statute. We therefore affirm.
Facts and Procedural History
On the afternoon of August 2, 2011, Debra Scheiber went to visit her elderly mother, Sylvia Fry, who lived alone at 511 Sherman Street in Huntington. When Debra arrived, she found her mother dead. Debra called the Huntington Police Department to report her mother's death, and police officers arrived at 3:24 p.m. Because Sylvia's house was filled with trash, see Tr. p. 17; Ex. C, D, & E, the police contacted the Huntington County Department of Health ("health department") at 4:03 p.m. Joe Rakoczy from the health department responded and determined that 511 Sherman Street was "unfit for human habitation." Ex. A. Rakoczy placed an orange sticker on the door that stated:
Id. Sylvia's body was removed from the house, and the police left at 4:39 p.m. When the police left, Rakoczy was still there speaking with family. Rakoczy also sent a letter to Sylvia's estate that stated, in pertinent part:
Later that same day, at 9:58 p.m., the police were called back to 511 Sherman Street on a report of a burglary in progress. Howell entered the house through an unlocked sliding door and took four porcelain dolls. As Howell was walking down the street with the dolls, a neighbor stopped him. A fight ensued, and Howell bit the neighbor. The neighbor restrained Howell until the police arrived. Howell told the police that he had seen the death investigation earlier that day and went inside the house to see what he could take. Ex. 7 (Narrative Report, p. 2).
The State charged Howell with Class B felony burglary (elevated from a Class C felony based on 511 Sherman Street being a "dwelling"), Class A misdemeanor battery (for the incident with the neighbor), and being a habitual offender. Ex. 1. Howell and the State later entered into a plea agreement in which Howell agreed to plead guilty to Class B felony burglary and Class A misdemeanor battery, and the State agreed to dismiss the habitual-offender enhancement. The plea agreement provided that Howell would receive an eighteen-year sentence. Ex. 2. The trial court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Howell to eighteen years.
In 2012, Howell filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, which was amended by counsel in 2015. The petition alleged that Howell's trial counsel was ineffective and that his guilty plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. Appellant's App. p. 55. The foundation of both claims was that 511 Sherman Street was not a "dwelling" as defined by Indiana law when Howell broke in.
The post-conviction court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law denying relief because it found that 511 Sherman Street was a dwelling for purposes of our burglary statute. Howell now appeals.
Discussion and Decision
Howell contends that the post-conviction court erred in denying his petition for post-conviction relief. He argues that his guilty plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent and that his trial
At the time of the crime in this case, burglary was generally a Class C felony but was a Class B felony if "the building or structure is a ... dwelling." Ind.Code Ann. § 35-43-2-1 (West 2012).
There are numerous Indiana cases addressing whether a building or structure is a dwelling, but none of them address the law-school-exam question presented here. Traditionally, our courts have said that burglary of a dwelling is not so much an offense against property as it is an offense against the sanctity and security of habitation. Watt v. State, 446 N.E.2d 644, 645 (Ind.Ct.App.1983); see also Ferrell v. State, 565 N.E.2d 1070, 1072 (Ind.1991) ("This Court has traditionally held burglary... to be an offense against the habitation."). To that end, the legislature has provided an increased penalty for burglarizing a dwelling "because of the potential danger to the probable occupants." Byers v. State, 521 N.E.2d 318, 319 (Ind.1988).
This is not to say that an occupant must be present at the time of the burglary in order for the building or structure to constitute a dwelling.
The common thread to these cases is that an unoccupied house is a dwelling if the occupant intends to return. See Carrier v. State, 227 Ind. 726, 89 N.E.2d 74, 76 (1949) ("[A] house[,] although furnished as a dwelling house, loses its character as such for the purposes of burglary if the occupant leaves it without the intention to return."); 3 Torcia, supra, § 325 ("If a person leaves his dwelling house, intending never to return, it ceases to be a dwelling house. It does not become a dwelling house again until a new person begins to live in it; he begins to live in it when he starts to use it regularly for the purpose of sleeping." (footnote omitted)).
But death is different than a temporary absence. Although there are no Indiana cases addressing whether a building or structure is a dwelling when the sole occupant is dead,
Here, Sylvia, the sole occupant of 511 Sherman Street, was found dead inside her house hours before Howell broke in. In fact, Howell knew that Sylvia had been found dead earlier that day. See Appellant's Br. p. 12 ("Howell admitted to observing the death investigation earlier that day."). Accordingly, 511 Sherman Street was a dwelling when Howell broke in.
Further, the fact that the health department determined that 511 Sherman Street was "unfit for human habitation" hours before Howell broke in does not impact whether the house was a dwelling for purposes of our burglary statute.
Because 511 Sherman Street was a dwelling when Howell broke in, his post-conviction claims based upon the house not being a dwelling fail.
BARNES, J., and MATHIAS, J., concur.