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Court News Ohio

Supreme Court: “RICO” Sentencing Statute Not Ambiguous, Mandatory Ten-Year Sentence Applies When Pattern of Corrupt Activity Includes Any First Degree Felony

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that the sentencing statute penalizing certain violations of the state’s Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute is not ambiguous, and that provision requires the imposition of a mandatory 10-year prison sentence in cases where a defendant is found guilty of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity that includes the commission of any first-degree felony.
The court’s 4-3 majority decision, authored by Justice Judith L. French, reversed a ruling by the Ninth District Court of Appeals and reinstated a 10-year prison sentence that had been imposed against David Willan of Akron for engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity that included multiple first-degree felony counts of making false representations for the purpose of registering securities.

The trial court in Willan’s case found him guilty on 68 separate counts, including a violation the RICO statute that included five first-degree felonies. In sentencing Willan for the RICO violation, the judge imposed a mandatory 10-year prison term pursuant to former R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) [current R.C.2929.14(B)(3)], which requires a 10-year sentence in cases where a court finds that a defendant “is guilty of corrupt activity with the most serious offense in the pattern of corrupt activity being a felony of the first degree.” 

On review, the Ninth District reversed some of Willan’s convictions based on the sufficiency of the evidence, but affirmed his convictions on the RICO charge and three of the predicate securities law violations.  The court of appeals vacated Willan’s 10-year mandatory prison term for the RICO conviction based on its finding that the language of R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) was ambiguous and the 10-year mandatory sentence was applicable only to persons found guilty of first-degree felonies under the state’s Major Drug Offender and attempted rape statutes, because those statutes are specifically mentioned in R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a).

Both Willan and the Summit County prosecutor’s office sought Supreme Court review of portions of the Ninth District’s decision that were unfavorable to them.  The court declined to hear Willan’s appeal, but agreed to review the prosecutor’s cross-claim that the Ninth District erred in vacating the 10-year sentence the trial court had imposed for Willan’s RICO conviction.

On behalf of the majority in today’s decision, Justice French wrote: “R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) is unambiguous on the question before us.  Willan was found guilty of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity under R.C. 2923.32(A)(1), predicated on three first-degree-felony violations of R.C. 1707.44(B). ... R.C. 2923.31(I), in turn, defines ‘[c]orrupt activity’  as ‘engaging in, attempting to engage in, conspiring to engage in, or soliciting, coercing, or intimidating another person to engage in’ any of several enumerated categories of predicate conduct, including conduct constituting a violation of R.C. 1707.44(B). ... Thus, because Willan was ‘guilty of corrupt activity with the most serious offense in the pattern of corrupt activity being a felony of the first degree,’ R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) required the trial court to impose the mandatory ten-year term of imprisonment.”

“We discern no support for the court of appeals’ interpretation that to trigger the mandatory ten-year term, the corrupt activity must also be ‘associated with’ one of the drug offenses and the attempted-rape offense ‘explicitly enumerated in R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a).’ ... That construction overlooks the fact that R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) lists the four offender categories in the disjunctive, signaling that each has a meaning independent from the others and that the existence of any one is sufficient to trigger the mandatory ten-year prison term. ... R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) already identifies which predicate offense triggers the mandatory prison term: ‘the most serious offense in the pattern of corrupt activity being a felony of the first degree.’  To add the requirement that the predicate offense must also be one of the drug offenses or the attempted-rape offense would amount to judicial legislation, and we decline to do so.”

“We acknowledge that R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) is, like most sentencing statutes, complex, but ‘the mere possibility of clearer phrasing’ will not defeat the most natural reading of the statute ...  Nor must the General Assembly draft a law with ‘scientific precision’ before we will enforce it. ...  We hold that there is only one reasonable construction of R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a): a mandatory ten-year prison term is required ‘if the court imposing sentence upon an offender for a felony finds that the offender is guilty of corrupt activity with the most serious offense in the pattern of corrupt activity being a felony of the first degree.’ Because Willan fell squarely within the scope of this provision, the trial court correctly imposed the mandatory ten-year prison term.  Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment.”   

Justice French’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon L. Kennedy.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger entered a dissent, joined by Justice William M. O’Neill,  in which she agreed with the Ninth District’s conclusion that the disputed code section is ambiguous. She quoted the entire statute without deletions, noting that it is written as “a single sentence, consisting of 307 words and containing separate references to over 20 other criminal statues, none of which is R.C. 2923.32, the critical offense of which Willan was convicted.”  After examining each clause, she concluded “the statutory language is hardly plain.”

Justice Lanzinger wrote that in her view the Ninth District had reasonably interpreted the ambiguous language of R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a) to hold that the General Assembly did not intend to “unequivocally impose a mandatory 10-year prison term for any offender found guilty of the general offense of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity set forth in R.C. 2923.32.” Thus, because two explanations of the statute exist,  the rule of lenity requires courts to adopt the interpretation that is most favorable to the defendant. In this case, Justice Lanzinger wrote, “Willan’s conviction for corrupt activity was based upon false representations in registering securities. Because the defined offense of corrupt activity under R.C. 2923.32 does not cross-reference R.C. 2929.14(D)(3)(a), the mandatory ten-year prison term is not applicable.” Accordingly, Justice Lanzinger said she would affirm the court of appeals’ ruling vacating that sentence. 

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer entered a separate dissent in which he agreed with Justice Lanzinger’s legal analysis, but highlighted the extreme length, lack of punctuation, and convoluted syntax of R.C. 2929.14(E)(3)(a).  Justice Pfeifer wrote that in his view the statute, “by cramming so many words about sentencing into one sentence, sentences itself to uselessness.”

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2012-0216. State v. Willan, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-2405.
Summit App. No. CA-24894, 2011-Ohio-6603.  Judgment reversed.
Hall, O’Donnell, Kennedy, and French, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, Acting C.J., and Lanzinger and O’Neill, JJ., dissent.
Michael T. Hall, J., of the Second Appellate District, sitting for O’Connor, C.J.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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