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Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Permissible Uses of Other Acts

The Ohio Supreme Court announced its decision in State v. Hartman this week. In a unanimous opinion, The Court affirmed the 8th District Court of Appeals decision which reversed the defendant’s conviction. the Court also used the opinion to issue a reminder about the permissible purposes of other-acts evidence, and the differences between various exceptions to the character evidence rule. I discussed the factual background of this case in a previous post. Here are a few key points from the opinion:

  1. Modus Operandi Evidence

Modus Operandi is only relevant where identity is at issue. The evidence must show that two or more crimes were committed in such a unique way that the person who committed one of the crimes is likely to be the same person who committed the other. The mere fact that a defendant has committed the same kind of crime before does not make that evidence admissible as modus operandi. The Court concluded that the other acts admitted in this case were not similar enough to qualify as modus operandi evidence, and that even if they were, it would not have been relevant, because identity was not at issue.

  • Common Scheme or Plan

In contrast to modus operandi, other acts used to show common scheme or plan do not need to be similar at all. However, the acts must be carried out in furtherance of the same overall plan. Without this limitation, “proof that the accused has committed similar crimes is no different than proof that the accused has a propensity for committing that type of crime.” Writing for the Court, Justice Fisher offered an example of a proper use of common plan evidence from the tv series Breaking Bad: The fact that Walter and Jessie had stolen a barrel of methylamine, an ingredient in methamphetamine, would be admissible as evidence of their plan to illegally manufacture drugs.

  • Intent and Absence of Mistake 

The Court agreed with the State that intent and absence of mistake were relevant, since the Defendant suggested at trial that he could have mistakenly believed the victim consented. While the Court admitted that “there is a thin line between permissible use of other-acts evidence to show intent and the impermissible use to show propensity,” in this case it concluded that “the State’s theory is that because Hartman previously abused his stepdaughter, it is unlikely that he had consensual sex” with the victim. The Court held that this incident was too dissimilar, and too far removed from the present case to be probative of the Defendant’s intent or absence of mistake.

  • Intermediate Inferences

The Court held that, “It is not enough to say that the ultimate purpose for which other-acts evidence is offered is a permissible one; rather, we must ensure that any intermediate inferences are also free of impermissible character purposes.” The Court pointed out that the State’s use of other-acts evidence relied on an unstated inference that the Defendant preys on sleeping women, and therefore ran afoul of the character evidence prohibition.

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8th District: Regan Tokes Applies to Maximum Period of Civil Commitment

In State v. Young, the 8th District Court of Appeals issued a decision holding that the indefinite sentences under the Regan Tokes Law apply to determining the maximum period of civil commitment of a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Ohio Legislature passed the Regan Tokes Act in 2019. The law added an indefinite sentence to the penalty for first- and second- degree felonies, equal to fifty percent of the definite sentence. For example, the range of prison sentences for a felony of the first degree is three to eleven years. If a judge sentenced a defendant to three years, the defendant would serve that sentence, followed by an indefinite sentence of 1 ½ years. The amount of the indefinite sentence served is determined by the Department of Corrections.   

When a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, a judge may order the defendant committed to a mental hospital until the defendant is either no longer mentally ill, or until the expiration of the maximum prison term the defendant was facing for the criminal charge.

The defendant in Young was charged with aggravated burglary. At trial, the court found her not guilty by reason of insanity. The Court determined that the maximum sentence was eleven years, and that was therefore the maximum period of commitment for the defendant, Regan Tokes Law notwithstanding. The State appealed, arguing that under Regan Tokes, the maximum sentence for an F1 is 16 ½ years, because a defendant could receive a maximum definite sentence of eleven years, with an indefinite sentence of 5 ½ years. Therefore, the State argued the defendant was subject to a maximum term of commitment of 16 1/2 years.

Although the Defendant argued the State had waived the argument by failing to raise it at trial, the court of appeals held that this was plain error, subject to review on appeal. The Court agreed with the State’s argument. Because Young could have spent up to 16 ½ years in prison had she been convicted, the Court held, she was subject to a maximum commitment of the same length following a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.

The Court declined to hear the Defendant’s argument that the indefinite sentencing provisions of the Regan Tokes Law are unconstitutional. The Defendant argued that because the law allows the Department of Corrections to determine the amount of the indefinite sentence the defendant actually serves, the law violates the separation of powers doctrine. The court of appeals held that the defendant had waived this argument by not making it at the trial level.