Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. will be prohibited from carrying a handgun in public, both on- and off-duty, beginning July 1.
A new Indiana law authorizing all adult Hoosiers age 18 and older to carry a handgun in public without needing to obtain a state permit ironically bars Lake County’s chief law enforcement officer from doing the same due to a pending felony charge against Martinez.
Under current law, county sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel automatically are exempt from the state’s handgun permit requirement.
But that exemption was deleted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in House Enrolled Act 1296 because beginning July 1 no one will need a permit to carry a handgun in public.
At the same time, the new law denies the right to carry a handgun in public to convicted felons; fugitives; some non-citizens; a person convicted of domestic violence, domestic battery or criminal stalking; a person under a restraining order; a person under indictment; a person formally deemed dangerous or mentally defective; or a person dishonorably discharged from military service.
According to court records, Martinez was indicted by a Lake County grand jury in January on a felony charge of resisting law enforcement and misdemeanor reckless driving.
Martinez is accused of failing to stop while driving an unmarked, county-owned Jeep TrackHawk at up to 50 mph over the posted speed limit on Taft and Main streets in Crown Point and Merrillville in September as two Crown Point police officers chased him with their lights and sirens activated, records show.
The Democratic sheriff has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His trial tentatively is scheduled for August, though it could be delayed while Martinez asks the Indiana Court of Appeals to consider tossing his criminal indictment.
A special judge on Wednesday granted Martinez’s request to certify for immediate appeal the judge’s prior refusal to dismiss the sheriff’s indictment, even before the sheriff is tried on the charges.
However, during that hearing, Martinez’s attorneys, Michael Woods and Paul Stracci, also acknowledged the sheriff’s indictment will make Martinez ineligible to carry a handgun when Indiana’s new permitless carry statute takes effect.
State Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, the sponsor of the permitless carry law, said he’s not personally familiar with Martinez’s legal troubles.
But Smaltz confirmed under the new law any person under indictment for felony, including a county sheriff, is ineligible to carry a handgun in public beginning July 1.
Martinez actually won’t be the only Indiana sheriff disarmed that day.
Clinton County Sheriff Rich Kelly, a Republican, was indicted in March, accused of official misconduct and conflict of interest for his alleged mishandling of hundreds of thousands of dollars of jail commissary and other funds.
An unknown number of local police officers throughout the state with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions also will lose their ability to carry a handgun in public under the law.
Notably, the restriction only applies to prohibited persons carrying a handgun in public.
Both before and after July 1 any person in Indiana legally entitled to own a long gun or rifle, including the AR-15 and other rifles previously classified as assault weapons, can carry it in public with few restrictions.
Under Indiana law, handguns and rifles remain prohibited at school buildings and court houses. In addition, businesses and homeowners retain the right to bar customers or guests from bringing a firearm onto their property.
Aside from how it personally affects his ability to carry a handgun, Martinez said at a recent sheriff candidates’ debate he believes Indiana’s permitless carry law is “a very scary situation.”
He said under the law, for example, officers who spy a handgun in a vehicle during a traffic stop no longer automatically will have a basis to check whether the person carrying the handgun has a valid permit to do so.
“You’re not going to know if that individual is a convicted felon, has been arrested for domestic battery, has any mental illnesses — so that’s tying the hands of law enforcement officers,” Martinez said. “That is a bad idea. I think it risks public safety and officer safety.”
Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter unsuccessfully made the same argument earlier this year when the new law was under consideration at the Statehouse and prior to it being signed March 21 by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Carter, along with representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police, said eliminating handgun carry permits will make the 18,000 Hoosier police officers less safe because there no longer will be an easy way to confirm a person with handgun is legally entitled to be carrying it.
"If you choose to support this bill you will not be supporting us. You will not be supporting the front-line officer," Carter said. "Shifting the burden from the individual who applied for the permit to the front-line officer is wrong on so many levels. But that's what you're doing."
State Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, vehemently disagreed with the characterization that permitless carry will increase crime and endanger law enforcement.
"You absolutely can support law enforcement and support this bill," Freeman said. "You either trust the citizens of Indiana or you don't."
Among Northwest Indiana lawmakers, the new law was backed by state Reps. Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point; Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie; Hal Slager, R-Schererville; and Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso; and state Sens. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores; and Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell.
Region lawmakers opposing the measure were state Reps. Mike Andrade, D-Munster; Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron; Pat Boy, D-Michigan City; Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago; Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary; Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond; Chuck Moseley, D-Portage; and Vernon Smith, D-Gary; and state Sens. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; Michael Griffin, D-Highland; Eddie Melton, D-Gary; Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton; and Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago.