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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

New Trial Ordered for Taxi Driver Who Shot Passenger After Altercation

Image of an illuminated taxi sign on the roof of a taxi.

New trial ordered to consider the self-defense claim of a taxi driver who shot a drunken passenger.

Image of an illuminated taxi sign on the roof of a taxi.

New trial ordered to consider the self-defense claim of a taxi driver who shot a drunken passenger.

A jury should have been allowed to consider the self-defense claim of a 71-year-old taxi driver who shot a drunken passenger after an altercation regarding the fare, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Phillip Palmer, who was convicted of felonious assault and a firearm charge. Palmer shot 38-year-old Nicholas Young in the neck after the two fought at a Moscow, Ohio, gas station regarding the cost of the cab fare for a late-night trip home. A Clermont County trial court had rejected Palmer’s request that a jury consider his claim of self-defense.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the trial judge improperly weighed the evidence and drew his own conclusions about the credibility of Palmer’s belief that he needed to use deadly force to repel Young. The chief justice wrote that under current Ohio law, Palmer only needed to provide adequate evidence “that, if believed, could convince a trier of fact, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was acting in self-defense.”

Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the chief justice’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that trial courts have discretion in determining whether a self-defense jury instruction based on the evidence is warranted. He stated there may have been sufficient evidence to show Palmer was in fear but not enough evidence to prove “it was objectively reasonable for Palmer to believe that he was in imminent danger of death and that the use of deadly force was necessary to protect himself.” Justice DeWine stated the trial court correctly refused to direct the jury to consider Palmer’s self-defense argument.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer and Joseph T. Deters joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Driver Disputed Fare for Long Ride Home
Young was attending a holiday work party in December 2019. He could not remember the number of drinks he had that day, but witnesses testified that Young was heavily intoxicated. At some point in the evening, Young ended up at the Jack Casino in downtown Cincinnati. Young passed out at the casino and was escorted from the property to a taxi operated by Palmer. Palmer could not understand most of what Young said, but only could confirm Young wanted to go to his home in Moscow, in neighboring Clermont County. Although Palmer did not know Young’s exact address, Palmer drove to Moscow. For most of the ride, Young slept in the cab. Palmer stated he called out to Young, “Moscow, sir,” when he arrived at the village, but Young did not respond. Palmer continued driving until he reached Ripley, Ohio, and then stopped the cab and woke up Young.

Young was upset that Palmer had driven past Moscow and that the fare was more than $100. Young demanded that Palmer drive him back to a gas station convenience store in Moscow. At the gas station, Young stated he was not going to pay the cab fare. He exited the vehicle, went into the convenience store, and offered another patron he recognized $20 to drive him home. Palmer followed Young into the store to collect his fare. After hearing Young offer to pay the other customer for a ride home, Palmer insisted Young pay him.

Altercation at Store Leads to Shooting 
The dispute over the unpaid cab fare turned into a heated argument between Young and Palmer. In the store, Palmer became aware that Young was in his “neck of the woods” and that Palmer was the only Black man in the store. Young was described as taller and bigger than Palmer. Young twice shoved Palmer, calling him names, and a witness testified that Young was threatening to beat Palmer up. Video surveillance showed that the second time Young pushed Palmer, it was into the glass door and that the door swung open as Palmer hit it.

Palmer walked back to his taxi and got into his vehicle to call the police. Young exited the store and was walking in a direction away from the taxi when he abruptly changed course and started walking toward Palmer. Conflicting testimony from witnesses indicated that Young started walking toward the cab because Palmer told Young that Young’s cellphone was in the cab. Palmer denied calling out to Young and said he had not heard or seen Young use a phone in the cab that night.

Palmer testified that Young approached him “faster than lightening.” Fearing that Young was going to kill him, Palmer pulled a gun out of a bookbag he kept on the cab’s passenger seat and fired two shots at Young. One hit Young in the neck, and he fell to the ground. Palmer exited the cab and fired a third shot at the ground near Young. He then got into the cab and drove away. Young was transported to a hospital and survived his injuries.

Palmer was indicted for attempted murder and felonious assault with a gun specification. At his trial, Palmer explained he began carrying a gun after hearing about another cab driver who was shot by a passenger. He also said he rarely drove at night because he was too scared and that in his experience as a cab driver, he had been attacked, hit, beaten, and robbed. He claimed he shot Young in self-defense.

Palmer requested that the trial judge issue an instruction to the jury on self-defense. The judge denied the request, finding that he did not “believe that a reasonable person would believe that they were in danger of being killed by Mr. Young under that situation.”

The jury found Palmer not guilty of attempted murder, but guilty of felonious assault and the accompanying gun specification. Palmer appealed his conviction to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. Palmer appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Requirements for Self-Defense Jury Instruction
Chief Justice Kennedy explained that in 2019, Ohio lawmakers modified the burden of proof required to claim self-defense. Previously, a criminal defendant had the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, all the elements that establish the action taken was in self-defense. After the change, the prosecution now has the “burden of persuasion” and must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did not act in self-defense.

Citing the Court’s 2022 State v. Messenger decision, the chief justice wrote that before the prosecutor has the burden of proving a defendant did not act in self-defense, the defendant must meet the “burden of production” and provide legally sufficient evidence to support each element of a self-defense claim. The opinion explained that this burden of production is “not a heavy one” and that it “might even be satisfied through the state’s own evidence.” When determining whether evidence is sufficient,“[t]he question is not whether the evidence should be believed, but whether the evidence, if believed, could convince a trier of fact, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant was acting in self-defense,” the opinion stated.

The Court majority noted that trial court judges are in the best position to “gauge the evidence” and determine whether it is sufficient to provide a self-defense jury instruction. A trial court’s decision will only be overruled if its decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable, the opinion explained. The Court found that the trial judge in Palmer’s case acted unreasonably by looking at the persuasiveness of the evidence rather than if there was enough evidence for a jury to consider the claim.

The Court stated that Palmer had to produce evidence that he was not at fault for creating the situation that led to the shooting; and that he truly believed he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and could only escape by using force. For the second element, Palmer did not need to present evidence that every reasonable person would have believed he was in imminent danger, only that “a reasonable person, under the same circumstances and with Palmer’s same subjective beliefs and faculties” would have believed he was in imminent danger. The Court explained the judge must consider Palmer’s “characteristics, knowledge, or lack of knowledge, circumstances, history, and conditions.”

The Court found that Palmer presented sufficient evidence for all the elements of self-defense. Palmer showed, and video surveillance corroborated, that Young was at fault for creating the situation by starting the physical altercation in the gas station. Palmer also showed that from his perspective, he was justifiably concerned for his safety. There was also sufficient evidence of Palmer’s imminent fear through testimony about his past experience of assaults while driving his cab, coupled with him being the only Black person at the scene, as well as Young being described as much bigger and younger than Palmer, and Young’s quick change from walking away to rapidly approaching Palmer immediately after the physical altercation in the convenience store.

The Court held that that evidence presented was sufficient to show that a person of Palmer’s age, with the same history and knowledge, in the same environment could have believed that deadly force was necessary to repel Young. That amount of evidence entitled a jury to consider his claim of self-defense because it met the burden of production, the Court ruled.

The Court reversed the Twelfth District’s ruling and remanded the case for a new trial on the felonious assault and gun charge.

Judge Correctly Denied Self-Defense Claim, Dissent Stated
In his dissent, Justice DeWine explained that a self-defense claim is measured by a combined  subjective and objective standard that considers whether it is reasonable for a person in the defendant’s position to believe that deadly force was necessary.

The dissent stated the majority opinion eliminated the objective aspect of the standard and only considered Palmer’s point of view. The dissent found that there was no evidence that Young was likely to kill or inflict severe bodily harm on Palmer. Nothing suggested that Young was armed, and Palmer conceded that while others may have heard Young threaten to beat him up, Palmer did not hear Young verbally threaten him, Justice DeWine wrote. The dissent also took issue with the majority opinion’s consideration of race to determine whether the use of deadly force is reasonable.

“There were no punches thrown – or other violent acts – and the shoves were not of sufficient force to knock Palmer to the ground,” the dissent stated. “Moreover, there was no evidence that it was reasonable for Palmer to use deadly force to repel a perceived threat from Young.”

Ohio law does not allow a person to shoot another person when there is no justification that the other person is about to use deadly force, the dissent stated. The trial judge did not abuse his discretion in declining to provide a self-defense instruction to the jury, the dissent concluded.

2022-0987. State v. Palmer, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-539.

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