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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Judge Authorized to Impose One-Year Prison Term for Failure to Complete Treatment Programs

A Richland County man was ejected from a court-ordered treatment program, which violated the conditions of his community control. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that this violation did not qualify as a “technical violation,” allowing a judge to send the man to prison for a year.

The Supreme Court stated that judicial orders to participate in treatment programs are “substantive rehabilitative requirements aimed at addressing the offender’s misconduct.” Violations of those requirements are not mere technical violations of community control and are not subject to the state law capping prison sentences at 90 days, the Court ruled.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated the Court recently held in its July 2020 decision in State v. Nelson that trial courts have discretion when imposing prison sentences for serious community-control violations, even if the violations are not crimes. The Richland County Common Pleas Court had the discretion to impose a one-year prison sentence on David Castner for violating conditions specifically tailored to address his criminal drug use, the Court concluded.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred, noting that she joined the dissenting opinion in Nelson. She stated that she believes a non-felony violation of community control is a technical violation of a person’s community-control conditions, but that the justices are bound to follow the precedent the Court established in Nelson. (See Noncriminal Violations of Community Control Can Lead to Extended Prison Sentences.)

Citing his dissent in Nelson, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated in today’s dissenting opinion that the term “technical violation” in the field of criminal law is commonly understood to be a violation that is not itself a criminal offense.

Treatment Ordered for Offender Facing New Round of Criminal Charges
In 2018, soon after Castner had been released from prison for crimes involving the sexual abuse of a young girl, he was back in court pleading guilty to aggravated possession of drugs, a fifth-degree felony. The trial court sentenced him to two years of community control and advised him that if he violated the terms of his community-control, he would receive a one-year prison sentence.

The conditions of Castner’s community control included a requirement that he complete a residential treatment program operated by the Volunteers of America (VOA). The trial court also ordered him to participate in Richland County’s Re-Entry Court, which is designed to reduce recidivism by providing services and support to recently released prisoners to help them transition back into society.

Program Rules Violated
Three weeks into his community-control sentence, Castner was kicked out of the VOA program. The VOA reported to the trial court that Castner was a “continuous disruption” to the facility’s programming and operations.

Castner’s probation officer alleged Castner violated the terms of his community control in a complaint submitted to the trial court, and Castner admitted to the violation. At the recommendation of the probation officer, the court sent Castner to a different residential treatment program operated by Alvis House.

About two weeks into his Alvis House stay, program staff discovered Castner had been using the facility’s computers and phones to contact young girls. Alvis House discharged him from the program for violating the facility’s computer and phone use policies. Because he failed to complete either treatment program, Castner was ejected from Re-Entry Court.

Prison Sentence Imposed
Castner’s probation officer notified the court of the second community-control violation, to which Castner admitted. Castner asked the trial court to give him another chance at Alvis House, if the program would allow him to return. His probation officer suggested the court terminate his community control and impose a prison term. The trial court concluded that Castner’s behavior posed a risk to the public and sentenced him to one year in prison.

Castner appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, maintaining that under R.C. 2929.15(B)(1)(c)(i), the maximum prison time he could receive for a technical violation of his community control was 90 days. The Fifth District affirmed the sentence and Castner appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Meaning of ‘Technical Violation’ Explained
Under R.C. 2929.15(B)(1)(c)(i), an offender convicted of a fifth-degree felony cannot be sentenced to more than 90 days in prison for certain community-control violations. The limit applies when an offender violates community control by committing a misdemeanor offense and to any “technical violations of the conditions of a community control sanction.” Justice DeWine explained that “technical violation” is not defined by the statute.

Castner asserted that a “technical violation” is any violation that is not a new felony offense. The majority opinion stated that in Nelson, the Court had rejected that argument and determined that a technical violation was along the lines of failing to meet an “administrative requirement,” such as missing a meeting with a parole officer.

In Nelson, the Court explained that to determine whether a violation was technical in nature, trial courts should assess the nature of the condition violated and the manner in which the condition was violated. When applying the Nelson reasoning to Castner’s case, the Court concluded that his violations were not technical.

“The conditions imposed by the court mandating that Castner complete the Alvis House and Re-Entry Court programs were plainly substantive rehabilitative requirements that were specifically tailored to address Castner’s drug use and were aimed at reducing the likelihood of recidivism. Indeed, substance-abuse treatment was the central focus of Castner’s community control sanction,” the opinion stated.

The Court noted that Castner’s misconduct at Alvis House occurred almost immediately upon his arrival and he did not make a serious attempt to engage in the required treatment.  Had his attempts to communicate with young girls gone undetected, his actions “might well have led to criminal conduct,” the Court stated.

Violations Were Technical under Customs of Criminal Law, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly wrote that the majority is not following the commonly understood definition of “technical violation” for parole, probation, or community control. He maintained the Court should not allow judicial discretion to the point that the meaning of “technical” lies “entirely in the eye of the beholder.”

He stated the General Assembly can define “technical violation” any way it pleases, and can differ from the commonly understood meaning of the term, which applies to violations that are not crimes.

“But until it does so, we should heed the clear intent of the language that is currently in place,” he wrote.

2019-1221. State v. Castner, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-4950.

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