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Court News Ohio

City Does Not Qualify as ‘Victim’ under Voter-Approved Victim’s Rights Law

Centerville, which sought $1,375.56 in payroll losses from the maker of a false active shooter report, is not a “victim” under the voter-approved Marsy’s Law and is not entitled to restitution, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority determined that voters presented with the ballot proposal in 2017 to add Marsy’s Law to the Ohio Constitution would have believed the rights of victims to receive restitution would apply to natural persons and perhaps private corporations, but would not extend to municipal corporations such as the city of Centerville.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French stated that Ohio voters were told Marsy’s Law “would ensure that victims and their families receive due process, respect, fairness, and justice,” and nothing suggests that voters understood and intended to include public corporations as victims.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice French’s opinion. Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred in judgment only.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that she agreed in this case that Centerville has no right to collect restitution for carrying out its duties to respond to an emergency call, but cautioned against fully ruling out that municipal corporations have eligibility under Marsy’s Law. She noted the rights of public corporations, such as municipalities, stem from the same rights as private corporations, and both types of corporations might qualify as victims in some instances.

Man Falsely Reports Shooting at Home
In April 2018, Michael P. Knab called 911 to report to the Centerville Police Department that someone was “shooting up the place” and hung up. The 911 dispatcher called the number back, and Knab said someone had been shot at his home. Several officers and the fire department responded to the call.

At the scene, police found a friend of Knab’s outside, who told them there was no active shooter and no one was shot. The friend told police Knab was inside and Knab said he believed people were trying to shoot him.

Police found Knab’s parents and a female guest in the home, and Knab’s mother also told the officers Knab believed someone was trying to shoot him. Knab came out of the house calmly, and police searched and found no evidence of gunshots. They did find drug paraphernalia.

Knab was charged with making a false report to law enforcement and improper use of the 911 emergency system, both misdemeanors. He was found guilty in Kettering Municipal Court, which hears cases from Centerville.

City Sought Compensation for Responding to False Report
As part of his sentence, the city asked the trial court to order Knab to pay restitution. Knab argued that Ohio law prevented the trial court from ordering restitution because Centerville did not suffer economic loss. He maintained the officers who responded were on duty and would have received their wages whether or not they responded to his call.

A Centerville detective calculated the labor costs for all the city personnel who responded as well as the 911 dispatcher and determined the city spent $1,375.56. The trial court ordered Knab to pay that amount in restitution to Centerville. Knab was also sentenced to time in jail, fined, placed on supervised probation, and ordered to complete a drug-and-alcohol assessment.

Knab appealed his conviction and sentence to the Second District Court of Appeals. He argued that under the state law for ordering restitution, R.C. 2929.28(A)(1), Centerville was not entitled to compensation. Centerville argued Marsy’s Law, which took effect in early 2018 — just months before Knab’s crime — expanded the definition of “victim” to include the municipality.

The Second District affirmed Knab’s conviction, but vacated the restitution order, finding that Centerville was not a victim for the purposes of restitution when it was carrying out its official duties.

Centerville appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Marsy’s Law Explained
To determine if Centerville was entitled to restitution, the Court examined the history of Marsy’s Law and its incorporation into the Ohio Constitution. Justice French explained that Article I of the Ohio Constitution is commonly known as Ohio’s Bill of Rights. Section 10a of the Bill of Rights was amended by Ohio voters when supporters of a national victims-rights movement known as Marsy’s Law won approval of a constitutional amendment.

The Marsy’s Law movement was started by the family of a California college student, Marsalee (Marsy) Ann Nicholas, who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. On the way home from Marsy’s funeral, her mother encountered the killer after he had been released from jail on bail. The family had not been notified of the release because no law required the court or law enforcement to keep the family informed. The Ohio amendment, like those approved in other states, sought to give crime victims and their families “meaningful and enforceable rights.”

Among the rights the amendment grants to crime victims is the right “to full and timely restitution from the person who committed the criminal offense or delinquent act against the victim,” which is listed in Article I, Section 10a(A)(7) of the constitution.

Law Does Not Specify Eligibility for Restitution
The Court noted that Marsy’s Law defines a “victim” as a “person” who is harmed by the commission of a criminal offense; however, the amendment does not define “person” or specify the types of harm that qualify for restitution.

The state law Centerville originally used to argue it was entitled to restitution, R.C. 2929.28, also does not define “victim,” the Court noted. The opinion stated that while the Court has never considered the issue, several Ohio lower courts have concluded that law enforcement agencies, such as sheriff’s departments and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, do not qualify as “victims” entitled to restitution for their costs to carry out their law enforcement duties.

Without clear definitions in Ohio law, the Court first looked at the language used in Marsy’s Law and determined that the ordinary meaning of “person” as voters would have understood it would be only a “natural person or it may include a partnership or corporate entity.” The opinion explained that although a municipal corporation can share similarities with a private corporation, it is a political subdivision and acts as an “arm of the State” when it is carrying out its governmental duties, such as providing police services. The Court concluded that Ohio voters would not have understood the term “person” in Marsy’s Law to include a public corporation.

The Court also found that Marsy’s Law focuses on “private rights,” such as the right “to be treated with fairness and respect for the victim’s safety, dignity and privacy.” Those rights are inconsistent with the rights of a government body, the Court noted.

The Court stated that today’s decision does not consider a municipality a victim under Marsy’s law, but it does not address the possibility that a municipality could receive restitution under other provisions of state law.

Municipality May Be Covered in Other Instances, Concurrence Maintains
Justice Kennedy, in her concurrence, wrote that she agreed with the majority that Centerville was not entitled to restitution to recover expenses for responding to an emergency call. However, she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that Article I, Section 10a, “categorically excludes” municipal corporations from qualifying as a “person” under Marsy’s Law when harmed by a crime.

The concurrence explained that municipal corporations have dual roles, carrying out governmental functions, such as law enforcement, and “proprietary” functions, which are operations the government performs but could be offered by others, such as private corporations or contractors.

While a municipal corporation should not qualify as a victim under Marsy’s Law when carrying out its governmental functions, the Court should not use this case to exclude a municipal government from arguing it is a victim when it is carrying out proprietary duties, she concluded.

2019-0873. Centerville v. Knab, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5219.

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