Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Sufficient Evidence from Drug House Proved Pattern of Corrupt Activity

Sufficient evidence, including video clips of three men making and selling crack cocaine, allowed a jury to conclude that the defendants engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to reverse a Tenth District Court of Appeals decision nullifying the corrupt activity convictions of Alvin Dent, William Walker Jr., and Drakkar Groce.

Police had arrested the three in March 2016 for their participation in a drug sales operation out of a Columbus house, and a Franklin County Common Pleas Court jury convicted them. On appeal, the Tenth District ruled the state did not present enough evidence to prove the men were engaged in more than a single event of illegal activity that day.

But Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, writing for the Court majority, stated the evidence showed the men “were not strangers to each other or to the drug activities at the house,” and a jury could reasonably conclude they had been working together for more than the period covered by the video clips.

The Court consolidated and considered Dent’s and Walker’s challenges to their corrupt activity convictions in one appeal. Groce was also convicted of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and other charges at the same trial, but his conviction was the subject of a separate, yet related, appeal that the Court decided today.

The Court’s decision affirmed the convictions, and remanded Walker’s and Groce’s appeals to the Tenth District for further proceedings on issues not addressed by the appeal.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the chief justice’s opinion.

Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Gene A. Zmuda, sitting for Justice Judith L. French, concurred in the appeals of Dent and Walker. Justice French joined the majority in Groce’s appeal.

In a dissenting opinion to the Dent-Walker appeal, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated the law requires evidence of two or more separate incidents of corrupt activity to convict the men of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. The law does not allow for a conviction based on “isolated clusters of multiple criminal acts,” which was all that the presented evidence proved, he concluded.

Justice Melody J. Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s dissent, and both dissented in Groce’s appeal.

Officer Suspects Drug House Operation
The Columbus Police Department received citizen complaints in February 2016 that a house was being used to sell drugs. Officer Lawrence Gauthney testified that he began observing the house and made two or three “spot checks,” in which he observed a high volume of individuals entering the house like visitors but only staying five or 10 minutes before leaving. He noted the activity was consistent with sales of drugs from a house.

Gauthney conducted visual surveillance of the house for more than an hour each time on two days in mid-March 2016, and again saw many people come and go after a short amount of time. On one day, he saw Walker enter the house and not leave during the 90 minutes he observed the property.

In late March, Gauthney arranged for a confidential informant to purchase what he believed was crack cocaine from someone in the house. The officer then obtained a search warrant.

Dent, Walker, and Groce were not apprehended in the home when the search was conducted, but three other individuals were. The police recovered several items from the home, including small plastic bags containing cocaine, electronic scales, and multiple firearms. During the search, police found video recordings from a camera located in the house’s kitchen, which captured Dent, Walker, and Groce along with others. Gauthney stated the video recorded a single day, March 29, and covered about a four-hour period.

Video Shows Drug-Making
At the men’s trial, the prosecution played portions of the video and Gauthney described how the video showed the three were cooking cocaine into crack, weighing it, bagging it, and selling it. At one point the video shows Dent, with Groce’s help, adjusting the camera for several minutes. The video also shows the men eating together and sharing videos on their phones with one another.

The jury found the men guilty of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, possessing cocaine, illegally manufacturing drugs, and trafficking in cocaine. Walker was sentenced to a total of 20 years in prison, while Dent received a 22-year prison sentence and Groce a 28-year sentence.

The three men’s appeals are not similar in all respects, but the three argued the state lacked sufficient evidence to convict them of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, which is a violation of R.C. 2923.22.

The Tenth District reversed the convictions for violating R.C. 2923.22, which is sometimes referred to as the Ohio “RICO statute,” because of its similarity to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appealed the Tenth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the cases.

Supreme Court Analyzed Conviction Requirements
Chief Justice O’Connor explained the men challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to convict them, which in essence is a test of the adequacy of the evidence presented. The majority opinion explained that in a challenge to sufficiency, the Court reviews whether “the evidence present, when viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, would allow any rational trier of fact to find the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The law defines a “pattern of corrupt activity” as “two or more incidents of corrupt activity, whether or not there has been a prior conviction, that are related to the affairs of the same enterprise, are not isolated, and are not so closely related to each other and connected in time and place that they constitute a single event.”

The opinion noted the Tenth District correctly observed the Ohio RICO law does not contain a specified time limit. The appellate court noted that it may be possible to convict individuals of a pattern of corrupt activity based on actions taken in a single day, but in general, the accused must be participating in activity over a longer period of time.

The time requirement is measured only as the time sufficient to carry out the enterprise’s purpose, the majority opinion stated, and the purpose of this enterprise was to manufacture and sell cocaine from the house. The video showed the men working together, adjusting the surveillance camera, and casually chatting with each other, as they made and sold cocaine to others coming and going from the house.

“Based on the video evidence, and viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution as we must, a rational juror could reasonably conclude that [Dent, Walker,] and Groce were not strangers to each other or to the drug activities at the house; and all understood the purpose of their joint activities,” the opinion stated.

The video coupled with the officer’s spot checks, surveillance reports, and the informant’s drug purchase provided enough evidence for a juror to find a pattern of corrupt activity, the Court concluded.

Concurrence Found Evidence of Multiple Days of Drug Sales
In a concurring opinion, Judge Zmuda stated the prosecution “presented extensive testimony” from Gauthney, who indicated that he performed spot checks of the home two weeks prior to the controlled buy and subsequent search of the house. The detective’s notes included descriptions of the individuals who entered and exited the home as well as notations of the time of entry and exit. He wrote a jury could reasonably believe the men had been selling drugs from the home for at least two weeks, and could conclude they engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity.

Pattern of Activity Not Proven, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly stated the fact that the three men knew each other and knew how to prepare crack cocaine “does not transform their actions that occurred over a four-hour period into an ongoing participation in the kind of organized-crime syndicate targeted by R.C. 2923.32.”

The dissent noted the three men were not at the home during the day police searched the house and were not present when the informant bought the drugs. The dissent explained that “multiple related crimes committed during the same time period and in the same place qualify as only one incident of corrupt activity under Ohio law.” The prosecution needed to provide evidence of the men participating in at least one more incident of corrupt activity to convict them of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, the dissent stated.

The video revealed three crimes – possessing and trafficking cocaine, and illegally manufacturing drugs – and the men were convicted of those offenses and given prison terms for them, the dissent stated. Allowing the state to add a RICO charge to any simple drug-trafficking case gives the state an “unjust amount of leverage to extract guilty pleas from small-time criminals by adding big-time criminal charges,” the dissent stated.

2019-0651 and 2019-0654. State v. Dent, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-6670.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

2019-0651. State v. Groce, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-6671.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.