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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

For Tampering Conviction, Evidence Must Be Related to Ongoing or Likely Investigation

The Ohio Supreme Court today held that a conviction for tampering with evidence requires proof that the defendant intended to prevent the evidence from being used in an ongoing or likely proceeding or investigation of which the defendant was aware.

In an opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, the court affirmed the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeals setting aside a woman’s conviction in Clark County for tampering with evidence because the state failed to prove that the evidence she tampered with related to an ongoing or likely investigation. In today’s 6-1 decision, the court also resolved a conflict between two Ohio appellate districts.

Two plain-clothes narcotics detectives stopped Amanda Straley in April 2011 after they saw her drive left of center. One detective smelled alcohol and noted that Straley was slurring her speech. She also did not have her driver’s license. She consented to a search of her vehicle and bag, but the officers found nothing illegal.

The detectives decided not to charge Straley, and then tried unsuccessfully to contact relatives to take her home. While the officers were finding out whether they could give her a ride, Straley insisted that she needed to use the restroom. No facilities were available nearby, so she stepped away and urinated near a building.

One officer checked the area, and discovered a clear cellophane bag covered with urine and containing what appeared to be crack cocaine. Straley was arrested and charged with trafficking in drugs, possession of cocaine, and tampering with evidence.

She pled no contest to the trafficking and possession charges. Following a trial, a jury found her guilty of tampering with evidence. The court sentenced her to nine months in prison.

Straley appealed to the Second District, which reversed her conviction for tampering with evidence. The appellate court also notified the Supreme Court that its decision conflicted with a decision from the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

Justice Lanzinger explained that the offense of tampering with evidence requires three elements under state law (R.C. 2921.12(A)(1)): “(1) the knowledge of an official proceeding or investigation in progress or likely to be instituted, (2) the alteration, destruction, concealment, or removal of the potential evidence, (3) the purpose of impairing the potential evidence’s availability or value in such proceeding or investigation.”

The Second District reversed Straley’s conviction for tampering with evidence because there was no proof of the third element, Justice Lanzinger wrote. Agreeing with the appellate court, she reasoned that the evidence tampered with must be related to an existing or likely investigation.

“[W]e hold that a conviction for tampering with evidence pursuant to R.C. 2921.12(A)(1) requires proof that the defendant intended to impair the value or availability of evidence that related to an existing or likely official investigation or proceeding,” Justice Lanzinger continued. “There is nothing in the record to suggest that the officers were conducting or likely to conduct an investigation into trafficking or possession of cocaine when Straley discarded the baggie. The baggie of cocaine did not relate to either an ongoing investigation of driving while under the influence of alcohol or driving without a license and had no evidentiary value to a likely investigation of public urination, and thus the record does not support a conviction for tampering with evidence.”

“Our holding simply requires that to establish a violation of the tampering statute, the state must show that the defendant, with knowledge of a proceeding or investigation that is in progress or likely to be instituted, altered, destroyed, concealed, or removed any ‘record, document, or thing’ with the purpose to impair its value or availability as evidence in that proceeding or investigation,” she concluded. “There is no need to expand the reach of the statute beyond its plain meaning.”

Justice Lanzinger’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Sharon L. Kennedy, Justice Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented without a written opinion, stating that he would have dismissed the case as improvidently accepted.

2013-0544. State v. Straley, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-2139.

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