Enhanced OVI Penalities
Enhanced OVI Penalties
By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer
It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for someone to be charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. So when Gary Adkins was indicted for an OVI violation in September 2007, there was no reason to think that it was anything other than a routine drunk driving case. But Adkins’s attorney raised an issue that eventually brought the case before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.
For his OVI, Adkins was charged with a fourth-degree felony – a higher charge than normal – based on the allegation that he had been previously convicted of or pleaded guilty to five or more OVI offenses within the previous 20 years.
Specifically, the indictment charged that Adkins had been convicted of six prior OVI offenses. That included a November 20, 1987 adjudication in Delaware County Juvenile Court, where Adkins had been adjudicated “a juvenile traffic offender as a result of Alcohol Concentration, Fleeing an Officer and Failure to Maintain Assured Distance.” Whether that adjudication could properly be considered a prior offense was the issue in this case.
The particular section of Ohio law – we’ll call it the 5-convictions statute – that Adkins was charged with violating employs a 20-year look-back to previous convictions and it enhances an OVI charge if a defendant has five or more previous, similar violations.
That’s why Adkins was charged with a fourth-degree felony – because he had been convicted of six prior OVI offenses dating to the one in juvenile court in 1987. But Adkins’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. He asserted that it lacked the sufficient number of qualifying prior convictions to support a felony charge.
He targeted three of the convictions, including the juvenile adjudication, as invalid for purposes of enhancement. The trial court ultimately ruled that one of the convictions was not a valid prior conviction for purposes of enhancement, but that the others, including the juvenile adjudication, were valid. Thus, the court’s ruling left a total of five admissible convictions for purposes of enhancement, and the court denied Adkins’s motion to dismiss.
Adkins ended up pleading no contest to the charge, and the trial court found Adkins guilty. He appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, alleging that the offense from the juvenile court could not be considered a prior offense supporting a felony conviction. But the court of appeals affirmed Adkins’s conviction. After that, his case came before us for a final review.
As mentioned earlier, the 5-convictions statute has a 20-year look-back to previous convictions. If a person has five or more previous violations, the penalty is enhanced to a fourth-degree felony. Adkins maintained that the offense against him in the juvenile court couldn’t be counted as one of those previous convictions.
It’s true that in Ohio, juvenile court proceedings do not result in criminal convictions. A juvenile court proceeding is a civil action, and juveniles are “adjudicated delinquent” rather that “found guilty.” But on January 1, 1996, the law as it pertains to juveniles was changed. Effective on that date, even an OVI-type offense from juvenile court could be counted as a previous conviction for purposes of enhancing the punishment for any subsequent charges.
Adkins’s attorney argued that an application of that January 1 law to this case would require a retrospective application of the law, which the General Assembly did not authorize. He also argued that, as applied to Adkins, the January 1 law is unconstitutionally retroactive because it impermissibly reaches back to his juvenile adjudication and enhances its consequences, converting a civil disposition into the basis for charging him with an adult felony.
In Ohio, a law “is presumed to be prospective in its operation unless expressly made retrospective.” And the Ohio Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from passing retroactive laws. But despite Adkins’s claims otherwise, the law in question here did not run afoul of the Ohio Constitution.
First, the January 1 law isn’t retrospective. It applies only to offenses that occur after the effective date of the law. Only those persons who commit an offense after January 1, 1996, can have juvenile adjudications count against them for the purpose of considering the degree of the new offense and the potential punishment for it. The law has no effect until a new OVI offense occurs. Then, at that point, a court can look at both a defendant’s adult and juvenile records.
The January 1 law is also not unconstitutionally retroactive. The retroactivity clause of the Ohio Constitution nullifies new laws that “reach back and create new burdens, new duties, new obligations, or new liabilities” that did not exist at the time the law became effective.
Adkins’s contention that an additional burden – an enhancement on a future charge – is placed upon the juvenile adjudication doesn’t really work. Adkins is not being punished for a previous juvenile adjudication; he is being punished for his current offense.
The United States Supreme Court has held that when a defendant is given a higher sentence because of his criminal history, “100% of the punishment is for the offense of conviction. None is for the prior convictions.” The sentence “is a stiffened penalty for the latest crime, which is considered to be an aggravated offense because it is a repetitive one.”
The January 1 law did not change Adkins’s juvenile adjudication; it merely added another type of legal violation as an aggravating offense that could be used in accordance with the 5-convictions statute. The January 1 law simply made clear that for penalty enhancement purposes, courts could consider a juvenile adjudication as a conviction.
Therefore, because the January 1, 1996 law is applied prospectively and is not unconstitutionally retroactive, we affirmed – by a seven-to-zero vote – the judgment of the court of appeals, which means that the fourth-degree felony conviction against Adkins is upheld.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State v. Adkins, 129 Ohio St.3d 287, 2011-Ohio-3141. Case No. 2010–0465. Decided July 5, 2011. Majority opinion written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.