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Court News Ohio

Utility Vehicle Does Not Fit Charge for Vehicular Assault

Image of a utility vehicle.

A driver could not be convicted of vehicular assault because under Ohio criminal law his utility vehicle wasn’t a “motor vehicle.”

Image of a utility vehicle.

A driver could not be convicted of vehicular assault because under Ohio criminal law his utility vehicle wasn’t a “motor vehicle.”

The driver of a utility vehicle for farm tasks cannot be convicted of a felony for injuring his passengers when he flipped it because the vehicle does not meet the definition of “motor vehicle” under the Ohio criminal code, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a Sixth District Court of Appeals decision that found Joshua Fork of Sandusky County was inappropriately convicted of two counts of aggravated vehicular assault. Fork crashed his Polaris utility vehicle while driving drunk at a late-night party in 2020. He did not contest his conviction for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OVI), but disputed the vehicular assault charges.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy explained that Ohio law has two definitions of “motor vehicle” – one that applies strictly to traffic laws, and one that applies more broadly to various chapters of the Revised Code and to the “penal laws” of the state. The definition that applies to penal laws, such as aggravated vehicular assault,” exempts utility vehicles, and “the record is insufficient to support Fork’s convictions,” the chief justice concluded.

The Sandusky County Prosecutor’s Office had urged the Court to consider how the vehicle was used on the night of the accident rather than its defined “principal use.” The prosecutor urged the Court to find the Polaris did not meet the definition of a utility vehicle. The Court rejected the argument, ruling that R.C. 4501.01(VV) requires the Court to examine the vehicle’s principal purpose.

Farm Vehicle Driven to Party
Fork attended a party in Burgoon, a Sandusky County village, in the summer of 2020. He drove his Polaris to the party, and during the night, he drank beers and socialized. Around 1 a.m., he took sisters Leah and Sarah Doering, as well as Leah’s boyfriend, Travis Perkins, for a ride on the Polaris.

While driving, Fork veered onto a dirt trail surrounded by trees and corn. He took a curve too fast and flipped the vehicle. Perkins suffered a fractured forearm as well as injuries to his head, face, and arms. Leah Doering broke her wrist and two front teeth.

Police administered a breathalyzer test, and Fork’s blood-alcohol content was 0.178, more than twice the legal limit. He was charged with two counts of OVI, which are misdemeanors, and two third-degree felony counts of aggravated vehicular assault.

At his trial, Fork testified that he bought the Polaris for farm work, including hauling rocks and bags of seed and removing tree limbs and brush from the farm. Fork submitted photos of the Polaris and demonstrated it had a “farm placard,” which included a bright orange triangle on the back.

At the trial, a dispute arose between the prosecutor and Fork regarding the definition of “motor vehicle” that would be presented to the jury. The prosecutor argued the definition under R.C. 4511.01(B) should apply. Fork argued that the definition in a different section, R.C. 4501.01(B), should be used because that statute applies to penal laws.

The trial court directed the jury to use the prosecutor’s chosen definition. Fork objected. The jury found Fork guilty on all counts. He appealed the decision to the Sixth District.

The Sixth District agreed with Fork that the definition to use when considering the aggravated vehicular assault charge was R.C. 4501.01(B). The court also rejected the argument by the prosecutor that under the Supreme Court’s 2001 Muenchenbach v. Preble County decision, the trial court needed to determine how the vehicle was being used at the time of the accident.

The Sixth District vacated Fork’s vehicular assault charges. The prosecutor appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Analyzed Vehicle Definitions
The Court examined the definitions of “motor vehicle” under both statutes and reviewed R.C. 2903.08(A)(1)(a), the offense of aggravated vehicular assault. Chief Justice Kennedy explained that the “plain language of the relevant statutes” guided the Court’s decision.

A person commits aggravated vehicular assault when the person, while operating a motor vehicle, causes serious physical harm to another person while under the influence of alcohol. The parties do not dispute that Fork was operating a “vehicle” while under the influence of alcohol and that he caused serious physical harm to others.

However, R.C. 4501.01(B) defines motor vehicles. It also includes exceptions. R.C. 4501.01(VV) states that utility vehicles are an exception to the definition of motor vehicles. The prosecutor’s chosen definition, R.C. 4511.01(B), has no exceptions for utility vehicles.

R.C. 4501.01 states that the definitions in that section apply to penal laws and various chapters of the code, except as otherwise directed by the General Assembly. The Court explained that a “penal law” imposes a penalty, such as a fine, imprisonment, or a loss of a civil right. The Court determined that aggravated vehicular assault is a penal law.

The opinion noted that R.C. 4511.01(B) confines its use to the state laws that apply to the traffic code. The General Assembly issued an express directive that the definition of a motor vehicle in R.C. 4511.01(B) “should not be used outside of those chapters,” the Court stated.

A utility vehicle is defined as a “self-propelled vehicle designed with a bed, principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry,  grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities.” Fork submitted evidence that the Polaris meets the definition of a utility vehicle, and its principal use was for farm-related activities.

The Court concluded the Polaris qualified for the exemption and cannot constitute a motor vehicle for the purpose of a felony charge of aggravated vehicular assault.

Court Rejected ‘Use-at-the-Time’ Standard
The prosecutor argued that Fork used the Polaris outside its principal use, such as driving to and from the party. The prosecutor pointed to the Muenchenbach decision, which regarded using a tractor during a highway construction project. In that case, the parties were disputing whether the tractor fit under a definition of “motor vehicle” as “other equipment used in construction work and not designed for or employed in general highway transportation.”

Under that definition, the statute required the Court to examine the vehicle’s use at the time. The “utility vehicle” definition that applies to this case does not have such a requirement to examine how it is being used, the Court noted.

How the Polaris was used at the time of the accident does not affect that its principal purpose is for farm activities, the opinion noted, and it is exempt from the definition of motor vehicle.

2023-0356. State v. Fork, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-1016.

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