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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Stolen Property Values Can Be Combined to Increase Theft Charge Regardless of Victim’s Status

A state law allows for a greater penalty for a person convicted of committing multiple thefts against a single victim and broadens the protection for the elderly, disabled, and military personnel, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court upheld the 2017 conviction of Lashawn Pettus, who argued his multiple charges for passing fraudulent checks at the same bank were misdemeanors and could not be “aggregated” into one felony charge. Pettus maintained that under R.C. 2913.61(C)(1), the penalty elevation is permitted only when the victim is elderly, a disabled adult, an active-duty member of the military, or the spouse of active-duty military member.

Writing for the Court, Justice Patrick F. Fischer explained the law applies to two “distinct instances” — thefts actually committed against any victim, and attempts, conspiracies, or complicity to commit multiple thefts of the elderly, disabled, and military families.

The decision affirmed a First District Court of Appeals ruling.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine did not participate in the case. Third District Court of Appeals Judge John R. Willamowski, sitting for Justice DeWine, joined the opinion.

Prison Sentence Contested
Pettus was indicted for charges related to passing multiple fraudulent checks at four separate banks.  Using R.C. 2913.61(C)(1), Hamilton County prosecutors aggregated the misdemeanor charges for presenting individual fake checks to a bank on separate occasions into one count of felony theft of each bank, which elevated the penalty. Pettus was convicted of all charges and sentenced to five years in prison.

Pettus appealed the conviction, seeking to have the four felony theft counts dismissed. He argued that they were improperly aggregated from the lesser multiple charges into one greater offense. He maintained that R.C. 2913.61(C)(1) only permits aggregation when the victim is elderly, a disabled adult, or military personnel.

The First District affirmed the theft convictions. Pettus appealed the First District’s decision to the Supreme Court. The First District also noted its decision conflicted with a Twelfth District Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court agreed to consider both Pettus’ appeal and the conflict.

Decisions Not in Conflict, Law Is Clear
The Court’s decision today found no conflict between the appellate court cases and ruled that aspect of the appeal was improvidently certified. The Court determined the Twelfth District case involved aggregating thefts involving multiple victims. That is distinctly different than Pettus’ case, which concerns aggregating multiple thefts involving one victim, the Court determined.

Justice Fischer explained that Pettus’ argument stems from the inclusion of the definition of theft, R.C. 2913.02, twice in the same sentence in parts of the law allowing aggregation.

The opinion noted that R.C. 2913.61(C)(1) states the aggregated value of all the property and services stolen during a series of offenses can be used to determine the seriousness of the charge. The law states this aggregation is permitted where there is a “series of offenses under section 2913.02 of the Revised Code, or a series of violations of, attempts to commit a violation of, conspiracies to violate, or complicity in violations of” several offenses, including R.C. 2913.02, when the offense involves the elderly, disabled, active- duty military members, or the spouses of active-duty military members.

Pettus maintained the two references to R.C. 2913.02 in the law meant it only applied to the listed classes of victims, which did not include banks. The Court noted interpreting the law that way would render some of the language in the law as “superfluous.”

Rather than limit the aggregation to certain classes of victims, R.C. 2913.61(C)(1) applies to two distinct series of offenses, the opinion noted. It applies to theft offenses, regardless of the status of the victims, the Court stated. It also applies to attempts, conspiracies, and complicity in the theft of the elderly, disabled, and military families, the Court concluded.

“This reading is not only logical given the structure of the sentence, but it is also necessary in order to accord full meaning to the provision,” the opinion stated.

2019-0914 and 2019-1027. State v. Pettus, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-4836.

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