Court Reinstates Felony Domestic Violence Conviction
The Supreme Court of Ohio today reinstated the conviction of a Cleveland man for a felony-level offense of domestic violence.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the court ruled that Timothy Tate’s attorney stipulated (agreed) to the authenticity of Tate’s two prior domestic violence convictions, which elevated his offense in this case from a misdemeanor to a felony. The court reversed a decision of the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which had misread a stipulation and ordered the trial court to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor.
Tate had been arrested in July 2011 for a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence following an altercation with his girlfriend, Yesolde Collins. A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted him for a felony charge of domestic violence based on an allegation that he had two prior domestic violence convictions in Franklin County.
Before potential jurors were questioned, the defense stipulated to Tate’s two earlier convictions. The trial court later explained to the jury that the state would present evidence of those convictions, and they would enhance the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony if the jury found Tate had committed the current offense.
After the state presented its case, the defense moved for acquittal, claiming the state had not presented evidence that Tate was the same Timothy Tate referred to in the Franklin County convictions. The trial court denied the motion. Then the defense requested that the court give the jury a limiting instruction, which noted that evidence had been presented that “‘the Defendant has two prior convictions for domestic violence.’” The court incorporated the defense’s request into its jury instructions.
The jury found Tate guilty of the felony charge of domestic violence, and the court sentenced him to two years in prison.
Tate appealed to the Eighth District. The appellate court rejected his claim that his trial counsel was ineffective, but it determined that the trial court erred when it convicted Tate of a felony because the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Tate had two prior convictions for domestic violence. The appellate court ordered the trial court to reverse Tate’s felony conviction and sentence him based on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.
The state appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the matter was orally argued at the court’s off-site session in Bucyrus on October 23, 2013.
In today’s opinion, Justice O’Donnell noted that R.C. 2945.75(B)(1) states, “‘Whenever in any case it is necessary to prove a prior conviction, a certified copy of the entry of judgment in such prior conviction together with evidence sufficient to identify the defendant named in the entry as the offender in the case at bar, is sufficient to prove such prior conviction.’”
He also referenced a 2012 Ohio Supreme Court case (State v. Gwen), in which the court held that “‘R.C. 2945.75(B)(1) sets forth one way to provide ‘sufficient’ proof of a prior conviction, but does not provide the only method to prove it. For example, an offender may, and often does, stipulate to a prior conviction to avoid the evidence being presented before a jury.’”
Justice O’Donnell noted that a careful reading of the prosecutor’s recitation of the stipulation explains the agreement entered into by the parties, is specific about Tate’s earlier domestic violence convictions, and shows that Tate’s attorney agreed that Tate was the individual referenced in the certified copy of the convictions from Franklin County.
“When read in context, the stipulation referred to Tate’s two prior first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence convictions,” Justice O’Donnell wrote. “The stipulation referred to the same Timothy Tate who was then on trial.”
Justice O’Donnell wrote that this analysis is further supported by the language of the defense’s request for a limiting jury instruction, which implicitly acknowledged that Tate had two prior domestic violence convictions that defense counsel did not want to form the basis of guilt in the current trial. He concluded: “The court of appeals erroneously determined that plain error existed in this case, and it improperly reversed the conviction and remanded the case. … [T]he judgment of the court of appeals is reversed and the judgment of the trial court is reinstated.”
Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French. Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and William M. O’Neill concurred only in the judgment of the court.
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