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Court-Ordered Truck Forfeiture for Third Drunk-Driving Offense Found Constitutional

A Medina County man’s constitutional rights against excessive fines were not violated when he was ordered to forfeit his $31,000 truck after being convicted of his third drunk driving violation in 10 years, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority ruled that the penalty levied by the Medina County Municipal Court against James O’Malley, which included the forfeiture of his 2014 Chevrolet Silverado, was “not grossly disproportional” to his July 2018 conviction for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OVI). The sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by causing him to pay an excessive fine, the Court stated.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated there is no simple bright-line test to determine whether a fine or forfeiture is excessive, and the Court relied on tests used in prior U.S. and Ohio Supreme Court cases to conclude the punishment was not excessive. The decision affirmed a Ninth District Court of Appeals ruling.

“In this case, the severity of O’Malley’s offense, driving drunk on a holiday after already having two convictions for the same conduct, cannot be minimized,” Justice Fischer wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Melody Stewart joined Justice Fischer’s opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote the forfeiture of a $31,000 truck, which was more than 11 times the maximum fine for a misdemeanor OVI charge, is excessive, especially considering it was the only significant asset O’Malley owned. Justice Donnelly also pointed to research indicating high fines do not deter crime, but the financial distress instead leads to continued substance abuse and criminal behavior.

Justice Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

Third OVI Costs Driver His Truck
On July 4, an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper pulled O’Malley over for suspected drunk driving. The trooper asked O’Malley for his driver’s license. He handed the officer a credit card. When asked for his address, O’Malley was unable to provide it.

O’Malley was charged in Medina County Municipal Court for OVI, refusing to submit to chemical testing, and failing to drive within marked lanes. Because he had two prior convictions for OVI in the prior 10 years, his truck was seized pending the completion of forfeiture proceedings under R.C. 4503.234.

O’Malley pleaded no contest to the OVI charge, and the other charges were dismissed. The trial court then conducted a forfeiture hearing , at which O’Malley argued the OVI law requiring third-time offenders to forfeit the vehicle involved in the offense was unconstitutional.

The court learned that the Silverado truck was purchased by O’Malley’s grandparents, and gifted to him in 2015. He had put about $5,000 toward the purchase price and claimed to have made several thousand dollars’ worth of improvements to the vehicle. The trial court found the vehicle to be worth $31,000, or roughly 11 times more than the maximum fine for violating R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v).

The trial court noted that O’Malley had used the truck when he was employed to drive to work, but was unemployed at the time of the forfeiture hearing. O’Malley stated he was not currently looking for work. The court determined he had no financial obligations to a spouse or child and was living without notable living expenses.

The court acknowledged O’Malley had not harmed anyone while driving drunk, but found “the potential for such harm, particularly for repeat offenders” remained high, and believed that O’Malley was “very intoxicated” and had put others on the road at “grave risk.”

The court imposed the maximum 365-day jail term for O’Malley, but suspended 335 days of the sentence so that he would only serve the minimum 30 days in jail required by the law. He was placed on probation for one year and had his license suspended for four years. He also had his driving privilege limited. He was fined the law’s minimum fine of $850.

The trial court rejected O’Malley’s claim that the statute violates the equal protection clauses of the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions, and the excessive fine provision of the federal constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

O’Malley appealed to the Ninth District. In a split decision, two judges affirmed the trial court’s ruling, but for different reasons. A dissenting judge wrote that the forfeiture was excessive because the trial court did not consider the drastic impact the loss of the truck would have on O’Malley’s financial condition.

O’Malley appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Rejected Equal Protection Claim
O’Malley raised two issues in his appeal to the Supreme Court, including that the law violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions because owners of vehicles faced the forfeiture if convicted for OVI a third time while nonowners with three OVI offenses did not face forfeiture of the vehicles they were driving when arrested.

Justice Fischer explained for this type of challenge, the Court will uphold a state law if the government presents a rational basis for enacting the statute. He wrote the government has a legitimate interest in deterring drunk driving, and Ohio has adopted a graduated sentencing scheme that escalates the punishment for repeat OVI offenders.

The opinion also noted lawmakers adopted another law, R.C. 4511.203(C)(3)(c), which permits forfeiture by owners who on more than two occasions lend their vehicles to individuals known to engage in impaired driving. Coupled together, the two laws demonstrate the legislature does not want vehicles in the hands of drunk drivers, the opinion stated.

“The fact that the General Assembly does not require the forfeiture of a vehicle for repeat OVI offenders who are nonowners is of no consequence, since a clear goal of the legislature was to protect Ohioans and their property from an out-of-control vehicle driven by an impaired driver, and the best way to do that is to prevent a drunk person from accessing a vehicle in the first place,” the majority stated.

Excessive Fine Challenge Unproven
To prevail on his claim that the forfeiture amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, O’Malley had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the law as applied to his set of facts is unconstitutional. O’Malley maintained the value of the truck far exceeded the maximum fine for the crime.

The opinion explained the standard is not a simple comparison of the fine to the amount of the property forfeited but rather is to compare the forfeiture “to the gravity of the offense.” The opinion stated that how that analysis is conducted is “not well settled” by the U.S. Supreme Court or courts across the nation.

The opinion explained several different methods courts have adopted to try to determine if a forfeiture is unconstitutionally excessive. Ohio established a test in its 1994 State v. Hill decision, which was based on a test developed by two federal circuit court decisions. In Hill, the Court stated several factors should be considered to determine if a fine is excessive, such as the “moral gravity of the crime;” the benefit reaped by the defendant when committing the crime; and whether the defendant caused, threatened, or risked physical harm.

After the Hill decision, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out a series of factors to consider in its 1998 United States v. Bajakajian decision. These included the type of crime committed; a comparison between the fine imposed and the amount of forfeiture; and if the defendant fits into the class of persons against whom the statute was designed to target. The opinion noted the high court also found it difficult to articulate a bright-line test for what constitutes an excessive fine.

The opinion noted the Bajakajian decision urged courts to “grant substantial deference” to the choice of penalty chosen by the legislature for the crime. Justice Fischer wrote that today’s decision instructs Ohio courts to use the Hill and Bajakajian decisions to guide their evaluations of excessive fines.

“We must allow trial courts flexibility so that they may consider the situation before them and make a fully informed and reasoned decision about whether a forfeiture is unconstitutionally excessive,” the opinion stated. “We need not bind trial courts’ hands in these already difficult forfeiture cases.”

After considering the factors that applied to the O’Malley’s case, the Court determined that forfeiture of the truck was not an excessive fine.

Forfeiture Unjustified, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly noted that when O’Malley’s grandfather died, O’Malley stopped working so that he could care for his grandmother. Justice Donnelly stated that no one disputes that drunk driving is a serious matter, but the legislature classified the offense as a misdemeanor, which carries a lower penalty than a felony. He maintained that the confiscation of O’Malley’s sole asset when faced with a misdemeanor crime is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“Surely, if the Excessive Fines Clause means anything, it means that the government cannot confiscate a defendant’s entire net worth when the maximum fine set by the legislature is less than one-tenth of the value of the forfeited asset,” the dissent stated.

Justice Donnelly maintained the Court should have remanded the issue to the trial court for a new calculation on the forfeiture and return some of the proceeds earned from the court’s sale of the truck to O’Malley.

2020-0859. State v. O'Malley, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3207.

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