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Buelna v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

November 13, 2014

JOSEPH K. BUELNA, Appellant (Defendant),
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff)

Page 138

Appeal from the Elkhart Superior Court, No. 20D03-0810-FA-52. The Honorable Thomas L. Ryan, Senior Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 20A04-1305-CR-223.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Donald R. Shuler, Barkes, Kolbus, Rife & Shuler, LLP, Goshen, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Katherine Modesitt Cooper, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rush, Chief Justice. Dickson, Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.


Page 139

Rush, Chief Justice.

The severity of a methamphetamine manufacturing offense depends on the weight of " pure or adulterated" drug the defendant manufactures. But the term " adulterated" is ambiguous in the context of the manufacturing process, which has led to divergent interpretations of how to define, and consequently how to weigh, " adulterated" methamphetamine. We construe " adulterated" meth-amphetamine as a final product, not the total weight of an intermediate mixture still undergoing reaction. This interpretation derives from our precedent discussing " adulterated" drugs, practical considerations about the manufacturing process, the structure of the methamphetamine statute, and the rule of lenity. Accordingly, when the State seeks to establish the weight of manufactured meth-amphetamine based on an intermediate

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mixture that contains methamphetamine, it must demonstrate how much final product that mixture would have yielded had the defendant finished the manufacturing process.

Here, the State presented no such evidence and thus may not use the intermediate mixture to establish the three-gram weight enhancement for Class A felony manufacturing methamphetamine. Yet, the record shows that Defendant manufactured additional final product that exceeded the three-gram threshold. On the basis of that additional final product, we find the evidence sufficient to sustain Defendant's conviction.

Facts and Procedural History

Phillip Miller owned a house in Elkhart, Indiana. Its garage needed repair, so Miller hired Nathan Slabach, a contractor. Slabach, in turn, hired the Defendant, Joseph Buelna, as a subcon-tractor to help him. During the time the two men worked on the garage, they often manufactured and smoked methamphetamine in Miller's attic.

On October 13, 2008, Buelna and Slabach spent part of the day " cooking dope." Their friend Kammi Pantoja arrived at Miller's house sometime during the process to smoke methamphetamine with them and saw them manufacturing methamphetamine together. Later that day, Slabach pulled " all the dope completely off" of three bottles that were used as reaction vessels. Slabach testified he " pulled a couple of grams out of each bottle," for a total of approximately six grams, and left at most a quarter gram remaining in each bottle.

That same evening, Elkhart police responded to an anonymous complaint about a possible methamphetamine laboratory at Miller's house. From the curb, the officers smelled an ammonia-tinged chemical odor associated with methamphetamine manufacturing. Their investigation led them to a ladder extending to a second-story attic window covered by a blue tarp. As one of the officers ascended, the chemical fumes grew so intense they caused his eyes to water and made it difficult to breathe. When the officer pulled back the tarp, he saw Buelna sitting in the attic. Meanwhile, another officer who had also climbed the ladder surveyed the attic and saw methamphetamine precursors and tools used to manufacture methamphetamine: a pot, eight spent reaction vessels, pseudoephed-rine pills, several hydrochloric acid generators, lithium batteries, cold packs, salt, a coffee grinder, and coffee filters. He also observed a bottle bubbling in the middle of the attic floor--a classic indicator of an active one-pot lab whose contents were still undergoing a chemical reaction.

In addition to the bubbling reaction vessel on the attic floor, the officers recovered two other active reaction vessels--vessels containing precursors still undergoing a chemical reaction. One of these two vessels tested positive for ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, a key component in metham-phetamine manufacturing. The other, a plastic fruit-juice bottle, was one-half to three-quarters full of " sludge," with an inch of liquid solvent floating on top. A sample of this liquid--weighing approximately thirteen grams--tested positive for liquid methamphetamine.

The State charged Buelna with Class A felony manufacturing methamphetamine--enhanced from a Class B felony because at least three grams of the drug were at issue--and Class B felony burglary. The State relied heavily upon the thirteen-gram liquid solvent that contained methampheta-mine to support the three-gram weight enhancement. After a two-day trial, a jury found Buelna guilty of the A-felony methamphetamine offense, but not

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guilty of the burglary charge. He was sentenced to fifty years, with thirty executed and twenty suspended. In a memorandum decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Buelna's argument that the evidence was insufficient to support the three-gram weight enhancement. Buelna v. State, 3 N.E.3d 1090 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014). The court reasoned that because the liquid sample taken from the fruit-juice bottle contained some " final product," the entire mixture constituted " adulterated" methamphetamine, and its entire thirteen-gram weight counted to satisfy the three-gram enhancement.

We granted transfer to address Buelna's argument that the evidence is insufficient to establish the three-gram weight enhancement because the thirteen-gram liquid mixture relied upon by the State to enhance his conviction is not " adulterated" methamphetamine. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A). We consider three issues to resolve Buelna's case: (1) what is " adulterated" methamphetamine; (2) what does that definition imply about weighing manufactured methamphetamine, particularly in cases where the manufacturing process is incomplete; and (3) is there sufficient evidence to show Buelna manufactured at least three grams of methamphetamine?

Standard of Review

The meaning of the statutory term " adulterated" methamphetamine and its implications for establishing the weight enhancement are pure questions of law that we review de novo. N.L. v. State, 989 N.E.2d 773, 777 (Ind. 2013). Once we have resolved these statutory issues, we are in a position to decide whether the evidence presented by the State in this case is sufficient to establish Buelna's weight enhancement beyond a reasonable doubt. When we review the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction, we consider only the probative evidence and reasonable inferences supporting the verdict. Jones v. State, 783 N.E.2d 1132, 1139 (Ind. 2003). We neither reweigh the evidence nor assess witness credibility. Drane v. State, 867 N.E.2d 144, 146 (Ind. 2007). And unless no reasonable fact-finder could conclude the elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, we will affirm the conviction. Id. That is, we ...

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