Jury Verdict Forms Must List Degree of an Offense or Elements that Justify a Conviction of a More Serious Crime
The sentence given by a Lawrence County court to a man found guilty of failing to comply with a police officer’s order or signal must be lowered from a third-degree felony to a misdemeanor because the jury’s verdict form did not include language required by statute, the Supreme Court of Ohio held today. State law requires verdict forms to contain either the degree of the offense or the elements that elevate the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony, the court said.
Today’s 5-2 decision reverses the judgment of the Fourth District Court of Appeals and addresses a conflict between that appellate court and the Third District Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has ordered the trial court to change the conviction to a first-degree misdemeanor.
Scotty R. McDonald was arrested in September 2010 after speeding at more than 100 mph on a highway heading toward Ironton and also driving at excessive speeds through the town while ignoring traffic lights and stop signs. He was convicted by a jury in the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas. The jury returned a verdict form finding McDonald guilty of “failure to comply with order or signal of police officer and caused a substantial risk of serious physical harm to persons or property.” The court sentenced him to four years in prison.
McDonald appealed to the Fourth District, arguing that the verdict form was improper because it did not indicate either the degree of the offense of which he was found guilty or the circumstances that raised his offense from a misdemeanor to a felony. However, the appeals court agreed with the lower court.
Yet the Fourth District also acknowledged that its opinion was in conflict with a decision from the Third District and notified the Supreme Court, which determined that a conflict existed and agreed to hear McDonald’s appeal.
In today’s 5-2 decision, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, writing for the majority, pointed to the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2007 opinion in State v. Pelfrey. In that case, the court analyzed R.C. 2945.75, which states:
A guilty verdict shall state either the degree of the offense of which the offender is found guilty, or that such additional element or elements are present. Otherwise, a guilty verdict constitutes a finding of guilty of the least degree of the offense charged.
Justice Pfiefer noted that the Pelfrey court described the statute as “‘clear and complete’” and one that “‘certainly imposes no unreasonable burden on lawyers or trial judges.’” And he added: “Pelfrey makes clear that in cases involving offenses for which the addition of an element or elements can elevate the offense to a more serious degree, the verdict form itself is the only relevant thing to consider in determining whether the dictates of R.C. 2945.75 have been followed.”
McDonald was convicted under a statute that prohibits the failure to comply with the order or signal of a police officer, which includes either a general failure to follow a police officer’s order [R.C. 2921.331(A)] or the “willful flight in a motor vehicle from a police officer” [R.C. 2921.331(B)], Justice Pfeifer explained. The second part of the verdict form stated “and caused a substantial risk of serious physical harm to persons or property,” which Justice Pfeifer reasoned can only elevate McDonald’s offense from a misdemeanor to a felony if he was found to have violated the “willful flight” section of the law.
“The first element of a felony charge under R.C. 2921.331 is that the failure to comply involved willful elusion or flight from a police officer,” he wrote. “Without that element, there can be no felony. The verdict form in this case does not indicate that the elements of R.C. 2921.331(B) are implicated. Therefore, the verdict form the jury signed does not set forth the additional elements that enhance the crime of a failure to comply violation from a misdemeanor to a felony; it therefore supports only a misdemeanor conviction.”
The court’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill. Justice Lanzinger also wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Judith L. French wrote a dissenting opinion. Justice Terrence O’Donnell also dissented without a written opinion, stating that he would affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.
In her dissent, Justice French noted that general verdicts are favored in criminal law and “there is no constitutional or statutory right to a guilty verdict reciting every element of an offense.”
Citing a 2009 decision from an appellate district, she wrote: “The jury instructions are what define the elements of an offense, … but there is simply ‘no requirement that the statutory definition of an offense be included on the verdict form.’”
“Because the only degree-raising element was the ‘substantial risk’ element … and because the jury’s guilty verdict explicitly found that element, I conclude that the jury’s verdict was sufficient to support a third-degree felony,” Justice French concluded.
In her concurrence, Justice Lanzinger explained that, while the jury verdict form in this case was “inartfully worded,” the majority is not requiring, as the dissent suggests, that every element of an offense must be recited on the form.
“The majority holds simply that the jury’s verdict must identify specifically the offense of which the defendant is found guilty: a reference to R.C. 2921.331(B) and [the “substantial risk” section] would have been sufficient, as would a reference to the degree of the offense as a felony of the third degree,” she reasoned. “This is a simple application of State v. Pelfrey.”
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