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Court News Ohio

Adult May Prove ‘Reasonable Parental Discipline” to Avoid Child-Injury Conviction

When a parent or caretaker is charged with a crime for injuring a child, the accused adult may prove their actions were a form of “reasonable parental discipline” as an affirmative defense to avoid a conviction , the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the conviction of a Delaware County man who argued that prosecutors must prove his punishment of a 7-year-old was unreasonable parental discipline. The Court was divided in its reasoning.

In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that reasonable parental discipline is an “affirmative defense” and the adult must prove the use of force was justified once the prosecution proves the elements of the crime charged, such as assault. The state has no duty to also prove the parental discipline was unreasonable.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Michael P. Donnelly concurred in judgment only.

Oral arguments in the case were heard at a special offsite Court session in William County.

Prior Ruling Confused Lower Courts
Clinton D. Faggs III claimed his constitutional rights were violated when he was convicted of domestic violence and assault based on a 2017 incident involving the son of his then live-in girlfriend. He allegedly beat the child for acting out in school.

At his bench trial, Faggs’ attorney suggested the allegations against him were exaggerated and that Faggs was using reasonable and necessary corporal punishment to discipline the boy. The court found him guilty on both charges and sentenced him to four years of community control and ordered him to complete 100 hours of community service.

Faggs appealed the decision, arguing the trial court improperly placed the burden on him to prove his parental discipline was reasonable, which violated his constitutionally protected “fundamental liberty interest in raising and controlling his or her child.”

The Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court ruled that as long as the prosecutors proved every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt, placing the burden on Faggs to prove his actions were justified does not violate his constitutional rights to due process.

The Fifth District noted its decision was in conflict with a 2013 Seventh District Court of Appeals decision, which placed the burden of proving the discipline was unreasonable on the prosecution. The Fifth District certified the conflict to the Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear both Faggs’ appeal and resolve the conflict among the appellate courts.

Prior Decision Stirs Confusion
Justice Fischer noted the Court addressed Ohio’s domestic violence law and the rights of parents or those acting in the role of parenting, also called “in loco parentis,” to discipline children in a 1991 case. He wrote since the State v. Suchomski decision, Ohio courts have been divided in how to interpret the law in cases where parents claim their actions constituted reasonable discipline.

In Suchomski, the Court noted that nothing in the state’s domestic-violence law, R.C. 2919.25(A) prevents a parent from properly disciplining his or her child. Parents, though, are prohibited from causing “physical harm.”  The opinion defined “physical harm” as an “injury,” meaning “the invasion of any legally protected interest of another.” Proper and reasonable parental discipline does not invade a child’s legally protected interest, the Suchomski opinion stated.

Justice Fischer explained the “overly legalistic and technical definition” of an injury left courts wondering whether the burden was on the prosecution or the parent to prove the reasonableness of the discipline. To answer the question, the Court majority stated it needed to analyze the language of the crimes Faggs was charged with violating.

State Not Required to Prove ‘Reasonableness”
R.C. 2919.25(A) states that “no person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to a family or household member,” The majority opinion noted that Ohio has a statutory definition of physical harm to persons in R.C. 2901.01(A)(3), which broadly defines physical harm as any “injury, illness, or other physiological impairment, regardless of its gravity or duration.”

Nothing in the domestic-violence law or the definition of “physical harm” indicates the state must prove the actions were unreasonable, the opinion stated.

“In fact, by including the phrase, ‘regardless of gravity or duration,” to modify the scope of the injuries encompassed by the term ‘physical harm to persons,’ R.C. 2901.01(A)(3), it seems that just the opposite is true: reasonableness or unreasonableness is not an element,” the opinion stated.

The Court explained the same is true of assault, which is defined in R.C. 2903.13(A) as “knowingly causing or attempting to cause physical harm to another.” Reasonableness of parental discipline is not an element of an assault either, the Court stated.

Adult Can Raise Reasonableness in Defense
The opinion noted that Ohio law allows for two types of affirmative defenses, those expressly designated by the legislature and those “involving an excuse or justification peculiarly within the knowledge of the accused.”

The Court majority noted some states have declared in their laws that reasonable parental discipline is an affirmative defense, but Ohio has not.

The Court stated, however, that reasonable parental discipline meets the definition of “justification,” as it would make the otherwise unlawful conduct lawful, and is “peculiarly within the knowledge of the accused.”

In cases of corporal punishment, the adult knows and is able to describe the corrective intent behind the use of the punishment and why the adult believed it was necessary to resort to such means,” the Court explained.

The opinion also stated that it is fair to ask the accused to prove through his or her own testimony or through other witnesses  that the level of discipline imposed was justified.

Placing the burden to prove this affirmative defense on Faggs does not violate his due process rights, the Court concluded, stating that, “[o]n numerous occasions, this court and the United States Supreme Court have decided that allocating the burden of proof in this manner is constitutional.”

While the prosecution must prove the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused must prove the reasonable parental discipline by the lower standard of a preponderance of evidence, the Court explained.

2018-1501 and 2018-1592. State v. Faggs, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-523.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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