Appeals court upholds stalking conviction against woman who targeted ex-sheriff

A woman who has more than a decade of grudge against a former sheriff can’t shake her stalking conviction after berating the man and following him around town for years.

When Darla Ellis was arrested in 2008 for causing a disturbance at a Sunday church service, then-law enforcement officer Terry Stoffel was called in to transfer Ellis to jail.

Stoffel then served as sheriff of Huntington County from 2011 to 2017 before becoming a teacher at the local school corporation. Near the end of Stoffel’s second term as sheriff, he noticed Ellis from his car “screaming and screaming out the window, ‘knocking him down’ and shouting ‘obscenities’ at him.”

The problem escalated in 2020 when Ellis began commuting past Stoffel’s school building during lunchtime, yelling and continuing to make obscene gestures towards her. The “relentless” behavior prompted Stoffel to change his lunch routine to minimize the need to go out during this time, stating that Ellis would appear “sometimes every day…sometimes every two or three days”.

Ellis also appeared and verbally assaulted Stoffel in September 2020, while working on the renovation of a local property.

When Stoffel was elected Huntington County Commissioner, Ellis sent hateful content directly at Stoffel to a local detective, stopped beside his car in a mall parking lot to make hand gestures toward him and followed him to the courthouse while he was inside with a sign in the back of his car saying “F—Terry Stoffel.”

Ellis was later charged with level 6 criminal harassment and one count of level 6 criminal intimidation.

During the inquest, she said she was angry that Stoffel transported her to jail instead of a doctor’s office in 2008. She also said she was also angry that Stoffel did not doesn’t seem to take seriously a complaint she made to him in the 1990s about a tanning salon employee rubbing a dirty towel over her face.

The Huntington Circuit Court denied Ellis’ request for a change of venue, instead bringing in more jurors than normal due to Stoffel’s public status. He also rejected Ellis’ proposed preliminary jury instruction regarding the state’s obligation to prove that Ellis “was not merely engaged in an activity protected by the First Amendment.”

Three potential jurors admitted knowing or having a connection to Stoffel were excused and removed from the venue. The jury ultimately found Ellis guilty of harassment, but not intimidation, and the trial court handed down a two-year suspended sentence.

A Court of Appeals panel upheld, finding no abuse of trial court discretion in its denial of Ellis’ motion for change of venue because she accepted the jury without exhausting her peremptory challenges . He also noted that every juror who admitted knowing Stoffel was removed.

The appeals court also found no error in rejecting Ellis’ proposed preliminary instruction, finding it would have confused the jury.

“We agree with the state that the instruction is inconsistent, and the trial court was well within its discretion to refuse an instruction that serves to confuse more than provide information. advice,” Judge Melissa May wrote.

As for his constitutional claims of protected speech, the COA concluded that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not protect the real threats made by Ellis.

“Ellis’s behavior went far beyond the unpleasant criticism of a public servant. She engaged in a targeted campaign of harassment and threats against Stoffel,” May wrote. “Although, in isolation, a message threatening to hit someone in the face with a twisted tea can or imitating a gun with one’s hand cannot cause a reasonable person to fear for the safety of the person, when such behavior is combined with frequent and lively events. yelling, swearing and honking at the victim at different locations in the city and combined with public slurs targeting the victim by name, this is a real unprotected threat.

The court held that the Indiana Constitution also did not protect Ellis’ speech.

“Here Ellis’ conduct hits the bar of exceeding all bounds of decency,” May wrote. “She tracked down Stoffel to publicly yell and insult her almost daily, and it all happened more than a decade after a supposedly reprehensible encounter when he transported her to prison, and after ‘He retired from his career in law enforcement to pursue teaching.’

Finding sufficient evidence to support the conviction, the Court of Appeal held in Darla J. Ellis v. Indiana State, 22A-CR-868.

About Jessica J. Bass

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