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Just one more reason not to drive drunk

By a 5-to-2 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court this week ruled against an Ohio man and ordered the forfeiture of his $31,000 pickup truck after his third drunken driving conviction.

James O’Malley of Medina County had fought to keep his 2014 Chevrolet Silverado after a Medina County Municipal Court judge found him guilty of an OVI arrest on the Fourth of July, 2018. It was O’Malley’s third OVI in 10 years.

On Thursday, the high court said the fine and forfeiture, in fact, was not too excessive and did not violate O’Malley’s constitutional right against excessive fines. He will not be permitted to keep the truck he was driving when he was pulled over.

In the majority opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated there is no simple bright-line test to determine whether a fine or forfeiture is excessive, but he said after comparing the case with other past rulings, the court determined “the severity of O’Malley’s offense, driving drunk on a holiday after already having two convictions for the same conduct, cannot be minimized.”

Agreeing with that judgment were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Melody Stewart and Sharon L. Kennedy.

Dissenting were Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Jennifer Brunner.

Donnelly wrote the forfeiture of a $31,000 truck — worth more than 11 times the maximum fine for a misdemeanor OVI charge — is excessive. Donnelly also pointed to research indicating high fines do not deter crime, but the financial distress instead leads to continued substance abuse and criminal behavior.

The case all began when an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper pulled O’Malley over for suspected drunken driving. He was charged with OVI after the trooper said O’Malley refused to submit to chemical testing. Because he had two prior OVI convictions in the last 10 years, the Medina man’s truck was seized under Ohio Revised Code 4503.234.

O’Malley ultimately pleaded no contest to OVI and was found guilty. During a subsequent forfeiture hearing, O’Malley argued the OVI law requiring third-time offenders to forfeit their vehicle was excessive and, therefore, unconstitutional.

Now, before making your own judgment, here are some details reported by Dan Trevas, who writes for Court News Ohio, a publication distributed by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Silverado had been purchased by O’Malley’s grandparents as a gift for O’Malley. He said he contributed several thousand dollars toward the purchase and subsequent upgrades.

O’Malley said he previously used the truck for work, but he was currently unemployed. And he acknowledged he wasn’t looking for work. The court also determined he had no financial obligations to family and no notable living expenses.

But before you roll your eyes and jump to further conclusions, here is, as they say, the rest of the story.

O’Malley’s grandfather had died, and O’Malley stopped working in order to care for his grandmother. And the truck was his only significant asset.

Additionally, the trial judge had imposed the maximum 365-day jail term for O’Malley, suspending 335 days, leaving him to serve 30 days in jail. He was given a year’s probation with his driver’s license suspended for four years. He also was fined $850.

And that was all before the truck forfeiture.

In his dissent, Donnelly stated: “Surely, if the Excessive Fines Clause means anything, it means that the government cannot confiscate a defendant’s entire net worth when the maximum fine set by the legislature is less than one-tenth of the value of the forfeited asset.”

Donnelly argued the court, instead, should have remanded the issue to the trial court for a new calculation on the forfeiture and return some of the proceeds earned from the court’s sale of the truck to O’Malley.

Sounds reasonable. But based on this week’s ruling, that’s not what will happen.

O’Malley had harmed no one by driving drunk, but undeniably, “the potential for such harm, particularly for repeat offenders” remained high and had put others on the road at “grave risk,” the court determined.

So, what is the moral of this very sad story?

As if enough reasons didn’t already exist to drive sober, Ohio’s Supreme Court this week gave us all another one.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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