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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Add-On Sentence for Discharging Gun ‘From Motor Vehicle’ Does Not Apply to Shots Fired While Defendant Was Outside Vehicle, Behind Open Car Door

Supreme Court reverses an Eleventh District Court of Appeals ruling involving a felony firearm specification.

Supreme Court reverses an Eleventh District Court of Appeals ruling involving a felony firearm specification.

Supreme Court reverses an Eleventh District Court of Appeals ruling involving a felony firearm specification.

Supreme Court reverses an Eleventh District Court of Appeals ruling involving a felony firearm specification.

The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that a provision of state law that adds five years to the prison term of a defendant found guilty of “discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle” during the commission of a felony does not apply to a Lake County defendant who fired shots at two men while he was standing next to his vehicle, behind an open car door.

The court’s 7-0 decision, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, reversed a ruling by the Eleventh District Court of Appeals.

Michael Swidas was indicted for attempted murder and other offenses based on an incident in which Swidas fired multiple shots from a handgun at two men. One of the men, who had a history of prior physical confrontations with Swidas, suffered a bullet wound to his hand. The charges in the indictment included two firearm specifications under R.C. 2941.146(A), which requires trial courts to add five years to the prison term of any person convicted of a felony during which the defendant discharged a firearm “from a motor vehicle” with the intent to kill or injure another person.

In their trial testimony, both Swidas, who claimed that he acted in self-defense, and the man he wounded indicated that at the time of the shooting the two other men were approaching Swidas’ parked car from the front, and that the shots were fired while Swidas was standing on the ground next to the driver side of his vehicle, with the open car door between himself and the two men.

At the conclusion of testimony, Swidas’ attorney moved to dismiss the five-year firearm specifications, arguing that the evidence showed Swidas was outside his car when the shots were fired, and that the specification was applicable only if the state proved that he was inside the car when the shooting occurred. The trial judge overruled the motion to dismiss, stating that the circumstances of the shooting, including the facts that Swidas had retrieved the gun from inside his unlocked car, fired it while standing in the space between the open car door and the driver’s seat, and got into the car and drove away from scene within seconds after the shots were fired were sufficient for a jury to find that he had discharged a firearm “from a motor vehicle.”

The jury found Swidas not guilty of attempted murder, but convicted him on two counts of felonious assault with two firearm specifications each, including the R.C. 2941.146(A) motor vehicle specification. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, which included a mandatory five year term for the “from a motor vehicle” firearm specification. 

Swidas appealed, asserting among other claims that the trial court had erred in denying his motion to dismiss the R.C. 2941.146(A) firearm specifications. On review the Eleventh District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s action, finding that the language of the statute did not limit its application to shots fired from “within” or “while riding in” a motor vehicle, and therefore the trial judge properly allowed the jury to consider whether the facts of the case showed that Swidas had discharged a firearm “from a motor vehicle.” 

Swidas sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eleventh District’s ruling.

Writing for a unanimous court in today’s decision, Justice Pfeifer said the crux of the case is what the word “from” means in the statutory phrase “from a motor vehicle.” He wrote: “R.C. 1.42 states that for purposes of statutory construction, ‘[w]ords and phrases shall be read in context and construed according to the rules of grammar and common usage.’ ... In accordance with that statutory mandate, we have held repeatedly that ‘[i]n the absence of a specific statutory definition, words used in a statute must be interpreted in their usual, normal, or customary meaning.’”

“The Revised Code defines ‘motor vehicle’ (R.C. 4501.01) and ‘firearm’ (R.C. 2923.11), but it should be no surprise that it does not define ‘from.’  Dictionaries do.  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 913 (3d Ed.1986) defines ‘from’:  ‘[U]sed as a function word to indicate a starting point: as (1) a point or place where an actual physical movement (as of departure, withdrawal, or dropping) has its beginning ...’ The Oxford English Dictionary 210-211 (2d Ed.1989) also defines ‘from’ (as) ‘Denoting departure or moving away: governing a [substantive] which indicates a point of departure or place whence motion takes place.’”

“Both definitions refer to a ‘point’ or ‘place’ whence something departs. In the statute, that point or place is ‘a motor vehicle.’ That place is not ‘the vicinity of a motor vehicle’ or ‘near a motor vehicle.’  The statute requires that the starting point of the activity is the motor vehicle itself.” 

“But a motor vehicle cannot fire a weapon; the statute applies to people.  ... For the locus of the discharge to be the motor vehicle, then, the person discharging the weapon must have a substantial physical connection to the vehicle. If a person were in or on a vehicle to the extent that the vehicle was providing substantial support to the person, the locus of that person’s firing of the weapon would be the motor vehicle. Without a substantial physical connection to the vehicle, a shooter cannot be said to have fired a shot that commenced from the motor vehicle.”

“R.C. 2901.04(A) states that ‘sections of the Revised Code defining offenses or penalties shall be strictly construed against the state, and liberally construed in favor of the accused.’ ... Strictly construing the statute in favor of the accused limits the reach of the statute to persons shooting a firearm from the vehicle itself, not from nearby. ... Since we conclude that R.C. 2941.146 is not applicable when a defendant fires a weapon while standing with both feet planted on the ground with no substantial physical connection with a motor vehicle, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals, vacate the appellant’s sentence on the firearm specification under R.C. 2941.146, and remand the matter to the trial court for resentencing.”

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2011-0244.  State v. Swidas, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4638.
Lake App. No. 2009-L-104, 2010-Ohio-6436.  Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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