Courts Must Consider Information Presented at Sentencing Hearings When Determining Whether to Merge Multiple Crimes
The Supreme Court of Ohio today remanded the case of an Elyria man involved in a carjacking and high-speed chase to the appeals court for reconsideration. When a court decides whether to merge multiple offenses during sentencing, it has a duty to review the complete record, including arguments made at the sentencing hearing, the Supreme Court ruled.
The unanimous decision, authored by Justice Judith L. French, reverses the judgment of the Ninth District Court of Appeals, finding that the appellate court misconstrued the Supreme Court’s 2010 holding in State v. Johnson.
David Washington and his brother attacked a woman in a Lorain County mall parking lot and stole her sports utility vehicle in February 2009. Following the woman’s 911 call, police located the SUV on Interstate 90 in Lorain County heading east toward Cuyahoga County. A high-speed chase ensued. While evading authorities, Washington drove the wrong way up an exit ramp toward a police officer, who shot twice at the vehicle. Washington continued for about another mile and then ran over a curb and stopped in a wooded area. He and his brother fled on foot, and Washington was soon found by police.
Later that year, a jury found Washington guilty of several crimes, including failure to comply with the order of a police officer and obstruction of official business. The trial court sentenced him separately for the two offenses. Washington appealed the sentences to the Ninth District Court of Appeals. He argued that the court should have merged the offenses and sentenced him for only one because the crimes were “allied offenses of similar import” under R.C. 2941.25.
While Washington’s appeal was being considered, the Ohio Supreme Court decided State v. Johnson. The Ninth District returned the case to the trial court to reevaluate the sentences in light of Johnson. The trial court again found the crimes were not allied offenses of similar import and resentenced Washington to separate and consecutive prison terms.
The Ninth District reversed the decision, stating that under Johnson Washington’s offenses should be merged because they were based on the same conduct. The state’s theory at trial was that the car chase formed the basis for both charges, the court said. Because the state did not assert during trial that the car chase and the foot chase were distinct criminal acts, the appeals court held that it was prohibited by Johnson from considering the crimes as separate offenses on appeal.
The state asked the Supreme Court to review the decision, and the court agreed to consider the case.
In today’s opinion, Justice French explained that, pursuant to statute, offenses are merged for sentencing when they share a “similar import” and result from the “same conduct” and are not merged if they are “committed separately” or have “a separate animus.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson held that “‘the conduct of the accused must be considered’ when determining whether two offenses are allied offenses of similar import subject to merger,” she noted.
“Although Johnson abandoned the abstract component of the first prong (similar import), it did not change the second prong (conduct), which has always required courts to determine whether the offenses were committed separately or with a separate animus,” Justice French wrote. “Contrary to the court of appeals’ view, nothing in Johnson requires courts to consider only the evidence and arguments presented by the state at trial.”
“Merger is a sentencing question, not an additional burden of proof shouldered by the state at trial,” she continued. “Granted, the state’s theory at trial may, in some cases, definitively support a finding that the offenses at issue arose from the same conduct. But it may be unhelpful in others. … Nothing in Ohio’s felony-sentencing statutes prohibits the litigation of merger at sentencing.” In fact, she maintained, statutes require trial courts to consider any information provided by either side during a sentencing hearing.
“By refusing to consider the state’s arguments at the resentencing hearing, the court of appeals misconstrued Johnson and violated its statutory duty to consider the information presented at the sentencing hearing,” she concluded.
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