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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Man’s Lengthy Criminal History Justified Consecutive Prison Sentences

A Cuyahoga County man’s five-year prison sentence for drug-related crimes was appropriate considering his extensive criminal history and evidence that he lied about the offenses he committed, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge made the proper findings to run two, 30-month prison sentences consecutively for James W. Jones. The Court also rejected Jones’ claim that the Eighth District Court of Appeals failed to do an independent review of his sentence.

Writing for the Court, Justice Jennifer Brunner noted the trial judge’s considerable explanation to Jones of the sentence and that she deemed it necessary to protect the public from future crimes by Jones.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Joseph T. Deters joined Justice Brunner’s opinion.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred with the majority opinion, but wrote separately to note that the trial judge could have sentenced Jones to no prison time at all or 10 years in prison. The sentence would have to be affirmed either way under current Supreme Court precedent regarding review of felony sentences “or really, our erasure of any meaningful review,” he stated. He asserted that meaningful appellate review is essential to serve “as a safety valve against outlier criminal sentences.”

Justice Melody Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s concurring opinion.

Offender Commits More Crimes After Indictment
Jones was indicted in March 2020 for seven drug-related crimes, including trafficking marijuana and possession of cocaine and methamphetamine. He was also charged with illegally having a weapon. A year later, he was indicted for operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs and alcohol after police found him passed out in the driver’s seat of his car. As those matters were pending, he was arrested a third time when police found a gun and drug paraphernalia in his car.

In July 2021, he pleaded guilty to the charges he faced in all three cases and no trial occurred. For sentencing purposes, the trial court relied on a summary of the facts presented by an assistant prosecutor.

Jones received two, 30-month consecutive sentences for trafficking in marijuana and illegal gun possession for a total of five years in prison. Sentences for all other charges were run concurrently.

Judge Explains Sentencing Choices
The trial judge engaged in an exchange with Jones known as a colloquy. She challenged his honesty and highlighted his criminal history. The trial court noted that Jones had been arrested 36 times, with 10 related to driving while impaired. She cited charges he had faced for gun-related cases, having vicious dogs, and 53 traffic citations.

Regarding drug trafficking, the judge stated his behavior did not indicate that he only bought drugs to use himself while selling some drugs to fund his drug use.

“No. These are shipments coming from California to you and your wife at your home under company names. This is getting pretty close to organized crime. This isn’t a user sale,” the judge stated.

The judge expressed skepticism of Jones’ acceptance of responsibility for his crimes.

“So, Mr. Jones, you accepting responsibility doesn’t mean that you’re not going to do it again next month, or two months from now, because that’s your history. That’s your history. You’ve not learned from any of these cases because you keep repeating them,” the judge stated.

The judge explained Jones’ repeated behaviors made it necessary to sentence him to 60 months in prison to protect the public. The trial court noted the sentences were not disproportionate to the crimes, finding that he committed multiple offenses while charges were pending in a previous case.

After he was sentenced, Jones appealed the sentences in two of the three cases. The Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. Jones appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Analyzed Sentencing Laws
Jones argued the Eighth District failed to follow its obligations to independently review the trial court’s sentencing and to ensure the trial court made all the required findings to impose consecutive sentences.

Justice Brunner explained that under Ohio law, multiple prison sentences are presumed to be served concurrently. However, under certain circumstances, sentences can be imposed consecutively. Under R.C. 2929.14(C)(4), a trial court can impose consecutive sentences if they are necessary “to protect the public from future crime or to punish the offender.” The court must make additional findings, including that the offender committed multiple offenses while awaiting trial or sentencing, or that the offender’s criminal history demonstrates a need for consecutive sentences.

The opinion noted that findings have to be stated at a sentencing hearing and placed into the written sentencing entry. However, the trial court has no obligation under current law to state the reasons that support the findings.

Under R.C. 2953.08(G), an appeals court must review the entire trial court record, including any reports submitted about the offender. An appeals court can increase, reduce, vacate, or modify a sentence if the record does not clearly and convincingly support the findings.

The Supreme Court found the trial court specifically stated why it found the five year sentence was necessary and how it is supported by the law. The judge expressed the need to protect the public from future crimes that Jones could commit. The Supreme Court also determined that the appeals court conducted a thorough review of the trial court’s reasoning and correctly affirmed the consecutive sentences.

Sentencing Laws Would Benefit From Guidance, Concurrence Maintained
In his concurrence, Justice Donnelly credited the trial judge for reviewing Jones’ criminal history and a presentence investigation report to fashion an appropriate sentence. He wrote this was an example of a trial judge doing her best to be fair and reasonable “in the absence of necessary guardrails” in Ohio sentencing laws. The concurrence noted that having access to Jones’ personal history helped the trial judge choose a fair sentence, and it asserted that sentencing courts could similarly benefit from having access to a database of sentences for similarly situated defendants across Ohio.

Justice Donnelly also asserted that under the Supreme Court’s latest State v. Gwynne decision, appeals courts are restricted in their ability to correct consecutive prison sentences that are disproportionate to the crimes committed. He maintained that the Eighth District in this case would have had to conduct the same limited analysis of the trial court’s decision regardless of whether the court sentenced Jones to 12 months or 120 months in prison because the trial court “jumped through the hoops” required by law.

“Requiring a sentencing court to merely jump through hoops before imposing a prison sentence is insufficient to ensure that the length of the prison sentence is necessary, fair, or proportionate,” the concurrence maintained.

The concurrence urged the Court to rethink its position on the roles of appeals courts in reviewing sentences.

2022-1049. State v. Jones, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-1083.

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