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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Witnesses Entitled to Rights When Faced With Jail for Failing to Appear at Trial

A prosecutor failed to prove that warrants were necessary to ensure two witnesses appeared at trial, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of “material-witness warrants” sought by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office for witnesses who were reluctant to testify against Darnell Eatmon Jr. In 2017, Eatmon was charged with attempted murder and other crimes related to the shooting of Khaalis Miller.

After Miller and his mother failed to cooperate with the state, the prosecutor requested that the trial court issue warrants threatening to incarcerate the pair if they did not appear to testify at Eatmon’s trial. The trial court rejected the request and dismissed the case against Eatmon. The case could be re-filed in the future. The Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, finding that the prosecutor did not provide probable cause through sworn statements that warrants were needed to ensure the two would testify.

Writing for the Court, Justice Melody Stewart noted the prosecutor argued that the Ohio Revised Code does not require probable cause to be established by personal service or an affidavit before issuing material-witness warrants. While statutory law might not require probable cause, Justice Stewart wrote that both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions do. The Court concluded the standards to issue material-witness warrants are the same as for arrest and search warrants, which require probable cause to be proven by “oath or affirmation.”

The opinion noted the “duty to disclose knowledge of crime” is so vital that laws establishing the government’s authority to arrest and detain witnesses were in effect before the United States became a nation. All 50 states have material-witness statutes, the Court stated, and today’s decision explains what prosecutors must establish under Ohio law when requesting a material-witness warrant.

State Finds Witnesses Difficult to Locate
Eatmon was indicted in December 2017 for shooting Miller but not apprehended until early 2019. Eatmon’s trial was scheduled for May 2019.

About three weeks before the trial, prosecutors filed motions requesting that Miller and his mother, Lisa Ford, each post a $5,000 bond promising to appear at trial or be detained as material witnesses until they testified.

In the request for court orders, the prosecutor’s office explained the various efforts that it had made to contact Miller and Ford. This included an assistant prosecutor’s attempt to call Miller at multiple phone numbers, leaving voicemails, and mailing letters to him. An investigator for the state said he traveled to four addresses listed for Miller, three in Cuyahoga County and one in Painesville in neighboring Lake County. The state sent a letter to the Painesville address and included a copy of a subpoena requiring Miller to appear at an April pretrial hearing. Miller did not appear.

The prosecutor stated Ford was a material witness because Eatmon allegedly confessed to her. Calls made and letters sent to Ford’s home and work went unanswered. And when a Cleveland police detective attempted to contact her, the state claimed Ford told him she wanted nothing to do with the case and that her son did not want Eatmon prosecuted.

Warrant Requests Denied
Unable to secure Miller and Ford’s cooperation, the prosecutor asked the trial court to issue arrest warrants and incarcerate them without bail until they testified. The trial court denied the requests, but continued the trial to July 2019. At the July trial, the prosecutors informed the court they could not proceed because Miller and Ford were not present. The state again requested warrants to arrest and hold the pair.

The trial court asked what steps were taken to serve subpoenas to Miller and Ford so that they knew of the July trial date and that their presence was requested. The prosecutor explained that since her and the investigator’s last efforts to contact Miller, they had mailed each witness a subpoena and left subpoenas for both at Ford’s home.

The trial court again denied the request for warrants and dismissed the case. After the Eighth District affirmed the decision, the prosecutor’s office appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Warrant Requirements
R.C. 2937.16 through R.C. 2937.18 and R.C. 2941.48 establish the processes for issuing material-witness warrants, the Court noted.

“These statutes enable a court to ensure the presence of a material witness at trial if the court has good reason to believe that the witness will not appear,” Justice Stewart explained.

R.C. 2937.16 allows a court to require a witness to post a bond that could be forfeited if the person fails to appear in court. R.C. 2937.18 permits a court to detain or jail a person who has failed to comply with the order to appear. Similarly, R.C. 2941.48 allows the prosecutor to request a court to order a person to appear at trial to testify and allows the person to be “committed to county jail” until the witness testifies or is released by the court.

The opinion noted the material-witness warrant process under these state laws allow a court to compel a witness to appear under the threat of penalty. The other procedure carrying the threat of jail is through service of a subpoena.

“Once either of those things happen and the witness subsequently fails to appear, then the court may issue an arrest warrant for that witness,” the opinion stated.

Trial Court Had Discretion to Deny Warrants
The Court found that even after the state was granted a continuance, the prosecutors failed to personally serve subpoenas to Miller and Ford and there was never direct contact with the witnesses. The trial court maintained that the prosecution failed to demonstrate the two would not appear at the trial without a warrant.

The prosecutor’s office argued that state laws do not require personal service of a subpoena or an affidavit explaining the necessity of the warrant.

“While this is true, individuals who may have information regarding a crime still have constitutional rights,” the Court stated.

The opinion noted that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires probable cause, supported by sworn statements, to issue warrants for search and seizure. Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution affords the same protection in criminal cases, the opinion noted.

Material witnesses subjected to arrest are “entitled to these basic, fundamental rights,” the opinion stated.

The Court stated the prosecution’s efforts only established that Miller and Ford were reluctant to cooperate, which is not the same as deliberate defiance of a subpoena, which would trigger an arrest warrant. The Court concluded that the prosecution failed to prove the warrants were necessary, and the trial court was entitled to deny the request.

2020-1018. State v. Eatmon, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-1197.

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