Current Law Requires Presentence Investigation Report Before Community-Control Sentence
State law and a rule for criminal proceedings preclude a trial court from sentencing a felony offender to community-control sanctions without first ordering and reviewing a presentence investigation report, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The court’s decision addresses two conflicting cases from the Eighth District Court of Appeals in which the defendants both were sentenced without the trial court considering a presentence investigation report. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases for its ruling today.
Justice William M. O’Neill, who wrote the court’s opinion, concluded, “[W]hile requiring a presentence investigation for every felony conviction when the offender is not sent to prison is excessive and unwarranted, it is unfortunately what current law requires.”
The decision reverses the Eighth District’s judgment in the case of LaShawn Amos and upholds the appellate court’s ruling in the case of Christopher Richmond. Both cases will be returned to the trial court, which must order and review a presentence investigation report before imposing a community-control sentence.
In October 2011, Richmond pled guilty to harassment with a bodily substance. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail with credit for time he had served since his arrest and fined $200.
In November 2011, Amos was arrested for cocaine possession and trafficking. He pled guilty to trafficking, and the court sentenced him to 30 days in jail with credit for time served, a $150 fine, and a six-month suspension of his driver’s license.
The state appealed both decisions to the Eighth District, arguing in part that for felonies the court must first review a presentence investigation report before it can impose community control. Separate panels of the appellate court reviewed each case. The panels issued their decisions on the same day, but came to opposite conclusions, and the appellate court refused an en banc review of the decisions.
Justice O’Neill today acknowledged that the appeals court’s “duty to act was clear, … and by refusing to resolve the conflict and definitively decide the issue the Eighth District has sent a message of chaos and confusion to all common pleas court judges in Cuyahoga County, which is truly troubling. It is contrary to the administration of justice for a court of appeals to announce two directly opposing views on the same issue on the same day and then decline an opportunity to establish a consensus view.” However, Justice O’Neill noted that Eighth District’s inaction is not the issue before the Supreme Court.
On the legal question, he wrote that the law favors community-control sentences, especially for low-level felonies such as the offenses in these two cases. Community control can include time in a halfway house or jail, day reporting, community service, or fines. The goal of these types of sentences is to protect the public and punish offenders without placing an “unnecessary burden” on state and local resources, Justice O’Neill explained.
Following U.S. Supreme Court and Ohio Supreme Court decisions involving challenges to sentencing statutes, however, “Ohio’s felony-sentencing scheme has now become so complicated that discerning the legislature’s purpose in enacting any individual statute now approaches futility — simple statutes often conflict with each other,” Justice O’Neill wrote.
“[P]reparing a presentence report when the trial court has already concluded that it is unneeded creates an unnecessary burden on the court’s resources, inconsistent with the general directive of R.C. 2929.11(A),” he reasoned. (R.C. 2929.11(A) explains the purposes of sentencing offenders who have committed felonies.) “This is not a hypothetical problem — in both Amos and Richmond, the trial court apparently concluded that a presentence investigation would add nothing to its sentencing analysis, and in Cuyahoga County an average presentence investigation report costs about $800 and takes about a month to produce.”
However, he concluded, “R.C. 2951.03(A)(1) specifically states that ‘[n]o person who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a felony shall be placed under a community control sanction until a written presentence investigation report has been considered by the court,’ and Crim.R. 32.2 states that ‘[i]n felony cases the court shall … order a presentence investigation and report before imposing community control sanctions or granting probation.’ These provisions are simply too clear to ignore.”
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French concurred only in the court’s judgment in the cases. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in part and dissented in part in an opinion joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer. Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented.
In her concurrence/dissent, Justice Lanzinger agreed with the lead opinion that the conflicting sentencing statutes “bedevil” trial court judges. But in these two cases, she reasoned, the community-control sanctions should not be disturbed on appeal unless there is plain error, which requires that there be an error that was an obvious defect and that affected substantial rights.
“The court’s failure to first order and review a [presentence investigation (PSI)] report is not a flaw in the sentence itself,” Justice Lanzinger asserted. “Rather, it is a flaw in the sentencing procedure.”
“The PSI is a means to accomplishing an end goal of a fair sentence — and not an end unto itself,” she wrote. “We must examine the sentences of Amos and Richmond to see if the sentences themselves are clearly and convincingly contrary to law. I do not believe that this standard is met.”
“There is nothing in either record to show ‘clearly and convincingly’ that the court imposed a sentence contrary to law in failing to review a PSI report beforehand,” she continued. “There is no statement suggesting that further information was needed before the court made its decision for these particular community-control sanctions.”
“The General Assembly should act to recognize situations such as these in which the delay in and the expense of creating a PSI report are unnecessary,” Justice Lanzinger concluded. “For the types of low-level felonies at issue in these cases, whether to order preparation of a PSI report should be left to the discretion of the court.”
In his dissent, Justice O’Donnell stated that the Supreme Court has now taken on resolving conflicting decisions between different panels of an appellate court. Such a course is contrary to the Supreme Court’s precedent requiring appellate courts to resolve conflicts through en banc proceedings, he noted.
“This court has spent considerable effort to guide appellate judges in the en banc process, and it is puzzling why the Eighth District in these cases chose to leave lawyers and litigants in Cuyahoga County uncertain about the state of the law,” Justice O’Donnell wrote. “And this is not the first time the Eighth District has resolved the same legal issue in different ways on the same day.”
“Confusion within an appellate district does not lead to the conclusion that this court should resolve intradistrict conflicts arising within that district,” he continued. “Rather, our role is, has been, and should be to order the appellate court to resolve the conflict via en banc consideration. Only after that occurs, upon proper discretionary appeal or the filing of a certified-conflict question, should this court decide whether it will exercise its jurisdiction to accept the case for resolution in conformity with our practice in accepting cases for review.”
“I would not resolve the merits of the legal issue presented, but would remand both cases to the Eighth District Court of Appeals with instructions to resolve the legal question in a consolidated en banc proceeding,” he concluded.
Note: State v. Amos and State v. Richmond were appealed separately to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the court combined the cases and issued one decision, State v. Amos.
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