State v. O'Malley

Decision Date15 September 2022
Docket Number2020-0859
PartiesThe State of Ohio, Appellee, v. O'Malley, Appellant.
CourtOhio Supreme Court

Submitted May 12, 2021

Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Medina County, No. 19CA0032-M 2020-Ohio-3141.

Kenneth J. Fisher, City of Brunswick Law Director, and J Matthew Lanier, City of Brunswick Prosecutor, for appellee.

Ronald A. Annotico, for appellant.

Elizabeth Bonham and Freda J. Levenson, urging reversal for amicus curiae, ACLU of Ohio Foundation, Inc.


{¶ 1} In this case, we are asked two separate questions about R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) and Ohio's criminal-forfeiture scheme for vehicles owned and used by repeat drunk drivers. First, we are asked whether that scheme violates the Equal Protection Clauses in the state and federal Constitutions by treating owners and nonowners differently. Next, we are asked, more specifically, whether the forfeiture of appellant James O'Malley's 2014 Chevrolet Silverado constituted an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We find that there was no equal-protection violation and that, as applied to O'Malley, the vehicle forfeiture mandated by R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) did not violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment because it was not grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Ninth District Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's forfeiture order.

A. O'Malley is found guilty of his third OVI in ten years

{¶ 2} In the early morning hours of July 4, 2018, an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper pulled O'Malley over for suspected drunk driving. When the trooper asked O'Malley for his license, O'Malley gave his credit card. The trooper then asked for O'Malley's address, but O'Malley was unable to provide it. O'Malley was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated ("OVI").

{¶ 3} O'Malley was charged in the Medina County Municipal Court with one count of OVI for operating his vehicle in violation of R.C. 4511.19(A)(1)(a), one count of refusing to submit to chemical testing in violation of R.C. 4511.19(A)(2), and one count of failing to drive within marked lanes in violation of R.C. 4511.33. Because O'Malley had two prior OVI convictions within the preceding ten years, his 2014 Chevrolet Silverado truck was seized pending the completion of forfeiture proceedings under R.C. 4503.234.

{¶ 4} O'Malley subsequently entered a plea of no contest to the OVI charge, R.C. 4511.19(A)(1), and the trial court found him guilty of that offense. The remaining charges were dismissed.

B. The trial court orders O'Malley to forfeit his vehicle

{¶ 5} The trial court held a forfeiture hearing pursuant to R.C. 4503.234 prior to sentencing. At the hearing, O'Malley argued that R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) violates equal protection by imposing a potential vehicle forfeiture against persons who own the vehicle involved in their OVI offense but not imposing that penalty against those who do not own the vehicle involved in the OVI offense. O'Malley also asserted that the forfeiture would be excessive under the Eighth Amendment. The court rejected both arguments.

{¶ 6} The trial court found that the distinction in punishment between owners and nonowners of vehicles involved in OVIs was rationally related to the state's legitimate penal goals. The court noted that in addition to the forfeiture requirement in R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) for vehicle owners with two prior OVI convictions within ten years of the third offense, the General Assembly had enacted a similar forfeiture requirement in R.C. 4511.203 for a vehicle owner who on multiple occasions wrongfully entrusted his or her vehicle to another person who then drove that vehicle while impaired. The existence of R.C. 4511.203, the court found, supported the reasonable distinctions between owners and nonowners-the goal was to keep impaired drivers off the road, and preventing their access to vehicles promotes that goal. Additionally, because the forfeiture penalty in R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(v) targets repeat offenders and is used as a deterrent against the owners of those vehicles, the means and method used by the state to further its interest survived rational-basis scrutiny.

{¶ 7} The trial court also determined that the forfeiture of O'Malley's vehicle would not be grossly disproportionate to the offense. The court used a multifactor test, weighing the harshness of the forfeiture against the culpability of the defendant, the gravity of the offense, the relationship between the property and the crime, and the harm to the community.

{¶ 8} The trial court recognized that this was O'Malley's third drunk-driving offense in ten years and that the vehicle was "the very medium" by which the offense was committed. The court focused on O'Malley's culpability, acknowledging O'Malley's prior alcohol-related convictions and remarking that there was an "inarguably higher" risk of reoffending.

{¶ 9} The court understood that O'Malley's Silverado truck was purchased by his grandparents in 2014 and was essentially gifted to him in 2015, less $5,000 that O'Malley had put toward the original purchase of the vehicle. The court found the vehicle's value to be around $31,000, which was roughly 11 times greater than the maximum fine for O'Malley's offense under R.C. 4511.19.

{¶ 10} In considering the hardship on O'Malley, the trial court did not believe that the forfeiture would significantly affect him. While O'Malley had used the vehicle for transportation to and from work, he was unemployed at the time of the forfeiture hearing. Though O'Malley stated that he would seek employment even with a license suspension, he then admitted that he was not currently searching for employment and had "[given] it a break" because of his situation. And though O'Malley had used the vehicle to help his grandparents, he told the court that his grandmother would rather see him unemployed and helping out at home than transport him to and from a low-paying job. Additionally, the court found that O'Malley had "enjoyed a stable standard of living without employment for at least a 10-month period" and that the loss of his most recent job had "neither * * * impaired his living accommodations nor motivated him to find alternate employment." The court also noted that O'Malley did not have obligations to a spouse, children, or any other person and was living without notable living expenses.

{¶ 11} The court acknowledged that O'Malley had not harmed any person or property when he decided to drive drunk but found that "the potential for such harm, particularly for repeat offenders like [O'Malley], remains great." The court believed that O'Malley had been "very intoxicated" and had "placed the driving public at grave risk." Under the circumstances, the court found that it was fortunate O'Malley had been pulled over. It further explained that O'Malley's "combination of impulsiveness and impairment demands attention" and that the risks of his reoffending and remaining a danger to the community were higher given his track record.

{¶ 12} Though the court deemed the monetary value of the vehicle relevant, it was not enough to persuade the court that the forfeiture would indeed be an excessive penalty. The court ultimately found that O'Malley had not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the forfeiture of his vehicle would amount to an unconstitutionally excessive fine or disproportionate penalty. The court ordered O'Malley to forfeit his vehicle and then proceeded to sentencing.

{¶ 13} During sentencing, defense counsel emphasized that O'Malley had entered a plea and knew he was going to be placed on probation by the court. Defense counsel also indicated that O'Malley had corrected course by regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and that he had enrolled in and graduated from an "intensive outpatient program." Additionally, O'Malley apologized for his actions.

{¶ 14} The trial court recognized that the purpose of sentencing for a misdemeanor offense is to "[p]unish the offender and protect the public." Acknowledging O'Malley's string of legal problems resulting from his use of alcohol over the previous decade, the court expressed its belief that O'Malley likely had a problem with alcohol and that it was good that he was taking action to "get [his] arms" around the problem. The court identified O'Malley's past probation violations, noting that he was "a difficult person to bring around on some of these issues" but that he had "a lot of life left," being only 31 years old, and that "there [was] no reason to give up on turning it around."

{¶ 15} So, in addition to the vehicle forfeiture, the trial court imposed the maximum 365-day jail term, suspending 335 days so that O'Malley would serve only the mandatory 30-day jail term. See R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(i). O'Malley was also placed on probation for one year. The court assessed six points to his license and suspended his license for four years, noting that he could have limited driving privileges after paying his fines and costs and with the use of an ignition-interlock system and restrictive license plates. The court ordered O'Malley to pay the minimum monetary fine of $850, see R.C. 4511.19(G)(1)(c)(iii), plus court costs.

C. The Ninth District Court of Appeals affirms the forfeiture of O'Malley's vehicle

{¶ 16} In a split decision, the Ninth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. The lead opinion rejected O'Malley's Eighth Amendment challenge, finding that the trial court considered the relevant legal authority in its decision and that O'Malley had failed to develop his argument that the trial court...

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