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Court Interprets Sentencing Laws for Certain OVI Offenses

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today in a case about sentencing defendants who are repeat offenders convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In an opinion written by Justice Judith L. French, the Supreme Court determined that when a defendant is convicted of a repeat-offender specification, the trial court must sentence the person to a mandatory prison term between one and five years. All seven justices agreed with this conclusion.

For the underlying conviction for operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI), the trial court may choose to impose an additional prison term from nine to 36 months, Justice French explained. While five justices concurred with this part of the opinion, two dissented.

The decision reinstates the trial court’s mandatory three-year prison sentence for Edward South in Summit County based on his conviction as a repeat offender. But the case now returns to the trial court to resentence South for the underlying OVI conviction, for which he originally received five years but now can receive only nine to 36 months.

South’s Sentences
Following a December 2012 accident, a jury found South guilty of two OVI offenses, both third-degree felonies, as well as driving under suspension and a repeat-offender specification.

After merging the OVI crimes, the trial court sentenced South to three years in prison for the repeat-offender specification and an additional five years for the underlying OVI conviction. The court ordered the sentences to be served consecutively and described them as mandatory.

The Ninth District Court of Appeals set aside South’s sentences for the repeat offense and the underlying OVI. The appeals court also informed the Supreme Court that the ruling conflicted with a decision from the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. However, the Twelfth District has since overruled its judgment.

Court’s Interpretation of Statutes
Justice French noted that the four statutes relevant to the case have multiple provisions and are “repetitive and confusing.” However, she pointed out that several sections in the laws reiterate the requirement that a person convicted of violating R.C. 2941.1413, the repeat-offender specification, is guilty of a third-degree felony and must be sentenced to a mandatory prison term of one to five years. In addition, the repeat-offender sentence must be served consecutive to and before any prison term issued for the underlying offense.

She added that R.C. 2929.13(A) states that the trial court also “may impose” an additional prison term as provided in R.C. 2929.14 or a community-control sanction. Subsection (B)(4) of R.C. 2929.14 notes that when a person is sentenced for a third-degree felony OVI offense, the court “may sentence the offender to an additional prison term of any duration specified in division (A)(3) of this section.”

Justice French reasoned that subsection (A)(3)(a) does not apply to South because it lists offenses not involved in this case. For other third-degree felonies, such as the one South was convicted of, subsection (A)(3)(b) applies, she explained. It states that the additional prison term “shall be nine, twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, thirty, or thirty-six months.” 

Determining that the various statutes can be harmonized, Justice French wrote, “[W]e hold that offenders convicted of a third-degree-felony OVI and a repeat-offender specification under R.C. 2941.1413 are subject to the following: (1) for the specification conviction, a one- to five-year mandatory prison sentence, which must be served prior to and consecutive to any additional prison term and (2) for the underlying OVI conviction, a discretionary term of 9 to 36 months.”

South Must Be Resentenced on OVI Conviction
She concluded that South’s three-year mandatory sentence for the repeat-offender specification was consistent with state law. However, the trial court imposed a five-year mandatory prison term for the underlying OVI conviction. That sentence is contrary to law because the statutes give courts the option to sentence the offender to a term only from nine to 36 months, Justice French explained.

Response to Partial Dissent
The justices in the dissent believe courts may impose a prison term provided in either R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(a), which allows for sentences from 12 to 60 months, or (b). While they point to testimony before the legislature to support their position, Justice French wrote that she relied instead on the language of the statutes and the Court’s “long-established rules of statutory construction.”

The decision affirmed in part and reversed in part the ruling of the Ninth District.

Justices’ Votes
The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfiefer, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and William M. O’Neill.

Chief Justice O’Connor also wrote a separate concurring opinion, as did Justice O’Neill. Justice Lanzinger joined the chief justice’s concurrence.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Terrence O’Donnell concurred in part and dissented in part in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy.

Chief Justice’s Concurrence
Chief Justice O’Connor wrote separately to stress the importance of judicial restraint in the Court’s decisions.

“Although any member of the judiciary is certainly entitled to his or her opinion that another justice’s or judge’s interpretation of a statutory scheme is ‘illogical,’ [quoting the concurrence/dissent] none of us is entitled to interpret a statutory scheme to make it reflect the logic that the justice or judge wants it to reflect,” she wrote.

“[T]he majority adeptly fulfills its duties to construe the statutes according to legislative intent, harmonizing them in a proper and reasonable fashion, and giving the provisions their proper force and effect,” she reasoned. “If we are incorrect in our understanding of the words used by the General Assembly in its complicated statutory scheme for OVI offenders, the General Assembly will amend the statute to more clearly indicate its intent. … But until it signals that this court and at least four courts of appeals are incorrect in our understanding of what the legislature intended, judges must apply the sentencing provisions of the Revised Code that govern OVI offenses in the manner set forth by the majority.”

Justice O’Neill’s Concurring Opinion
In his separate concurrence, Justice O’Neill emphasized how the legislature’s policy of mandating to judges what sentences they must impose affects justice in the state’s courts.  He noted that repeated offenses are often caused by issues such as addiction and poverty.

“In those circumstances, mandatory jail terms, like that required for the specification in this case, tie the hands of the trial court judges,” he wrote. “There are those in the legislature who would truly like to replace judges with an automated data-processing machine. ‘You do this crime, and you get that sentence. Don’t bother me with the specific facts of the case.’”

“We elect judges to make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” he continued. “Theft to feed a child is obviously different from theft by a career criminal. I believe that we can trust Ohio’s elected trial court judges to make tough calls about sentencing. Judges act responsibly when given broad sentencing authority and the power to impose nonprison alternatives.”

Justice Kennedy Concurs in Part, Dissents in Part
Justice Kennedy agreed with the majority that the law requires a sentence of one to five years for the repeat-offender specification and gave the trial court the option to impose more prison time for the underlying OVI conviction.

In her view, however, the statutory language of R.C. 2929.14 permitted the trial court to impose a sentence from 9 to 60 months for the underlying OVI conviction. Justice Kennedy noted that the language of R.C. 2929.14(A) required that its provisions yield to those provisions of R.C. 2929.14(B)(4) that modify or change R.C. 2929.14(A). “[T]he General Assembly provided in R.C. 2929.14(B)(4) that an additional prison term of any duration specified in R.C. 2929.14(A)(3) may be imposed for the underlying third-degree-felony OVI offense. This requires that both subsections (A)(3)(a) and (A)(3)(b) of R.C. 2929.14 apply. Accordingly, I would hold that the General Assembly gave the trial court discretionary authority to sentence South to an additional prison term of 9, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, or 60 months for the underlying third-degree-felony OVI offense.”

“The majority places a limitation on the General Assembly’s language by asserting that only subsection (A)(3)(b) of R.C. 2929.14 applies when sentencing pursuant to R.C. 2929.14(B)(4),” she continued. “However, the General Assembly placed no such limitation in the statute.”    

“[I]t is illogical to find that the General Assembly intended to limit a trial court’s discretionary sentencing authority for an underlying third-degree-felony OVI offense to a maximum of 36 months pursuant to R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(b), when R.C. 2929.14(B)(4) refers to R.C. 2929.14(A)(3) as a whole,” she concluded.

In support of this interpretation, Justice Kennedy cited testimony provided to the state legislature opposing reductions in sentences for third-degree felonies and pointing out the seriousness of these types of offenses.

She concurred with the majority that South’s three-year mandatory sentence for the repeat-offender specification should be reinstated. On remand to the trial court, however, Justice Kennedy would instruct the trial court that it may impose any of the prison sentences from either R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(a) or (b) for the underlying OVI conviction.

2014-0563. State v. South, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-3930.

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