Aggravated Vehicular Homicide; State v. Hassler
Blood Alcohol Test Taken Outside Time Limit Held Admissible in DUI Vehicular Homicide
2006-1517. State v. Hassler, 2007-Ohio-4947.
Delaware App. No. 05 CAA11 0078, 2006-Ohio-3397. Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
Lundberg Stratton, O’Connor, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Moyer, C.J., and Pfeifer and O’Donnell, JJ., dissent.
(Sept. 27, 2007) Under limited circumstances, in the prosecution of a driver for aggravated vehicular homicide while “under the influence of alcohol,” Ohio courts may admit the results of a blood alcohol test taken outside the two-hour time limit for admissibility under the state’s DUI statute, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.
The case involved the death of 34-year-old Columbus woman, Leondra Mayo, who was killed in a one-car crash in Westerville in January 2005. The driver of the vehicle, Michael Hassler, was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide. Both the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and 5th District Court of Appeals ruled that blood-alcohol test results taken from Hassler more than eight hours after the crash were inadmissible as evidence at his trial.
In today’s 4-3 decision authored by Justice Maureen O’Connor, the Supreme Court reversed the trial and appellate court rulings, holding that delayed test results are admissible in a vehicular homicide case under specified conditions.
Hassler lost control of his car around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2005, and crashed into a large sign. One of the supporting posts for the sign went through the windshield, fatally injuring Mayo, who was a passenger in the vehicle. While Hassler was being treated at a hospital for his own injuries, police investigating the crash suspected that he had been driving while under the influence of alcohol and asked him to submit to a blood, breath or urine test. After waiting while Hassler consulted with legal counsel and then continued to delay, officers obtained a warrant compelling him to submit a sample for testing, but did not obtain a test sample until 10:30 a.m., about eight hours after the estimated time of the crash. The test yielded a blood alcohol content (BAC) of.062 percent, which was below the.08 percent reading required to establish a per se DUI violation.
The Delaware County prosecutor charged Hassler with aggravated vehicular homicide under R.C. 2903.06(A), alleging that he caused Mayo’s death while committing a violation of R.C. 4511.19, the DUI statute. Hassler filed a pretrial motion to exclude the blood alcohol test results from being admitted as evidence at his trial. The trial court ruled that the test results were inadmissible because the test was not conducted within the two-hour time limit prescribed in the DUI statute. The prosecutor appealed, and the 5th District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
Attorneys for the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Justice O’Connor pointed out that Ohio’s DUI statute defines two separate types of offenses: the per se offense of driving with a BAC of.08 percent or higher, and an alternative offense of “driving under the influence” that does not require a BAC reading over the presumptive.08 standard. She noted that causing the death of another in the course of either a “per se” or an “under-the-influence” violation of R.C. 4511.19 is sufficient to support a conviction for aggravated vehicular homicide.
Justice O’Connor cited a 1988 Supreme Court of Ohio decision, Newark v. Lucas, holding that blood alcohol test results taken outside of the statutory two-hour time limit were admissible in the prosecution of an “under the influence” DUI charge if those results were supported by expert testimony to establish their relevance. Attorneys for Hassler argued that Lucas was overruled by the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in State v. Mayl, in which the Court held that BAC test results were admissible in an aggravated vehicular homicide case only if testing was conducted in “substantial compliance” with state health department standards. However, Justice O’Connor wrote that Mayl “complements the Lucas holding.”
“… Lucas and Mayl deal with two distinct issues,” Justice O’Connor wrote. “ Lucas focused on the two-hour window prescribed in the statute, while Mayl addresses the nature of substantial compliance with the ODH regulations. In fact, like Lucas before it, Mayl acknowledges that the purpose of substantial compliance with the ODH regulations is ‘to ensure the accuracy of bodily test results’ … The substantial-compliance component of Mayl, therefore, does not overrule Lucas.”
“ For the foregoing reasons, we hold that a blood sample taken outside the time frame set out in R.C. 4511.19(D) is admissible to prove that a person is under the influence of alcohol as proscribed by R.C. 4511.19(A)(1)(a) in the prosecution for a violation of R.C. 2903.06, provided that the administrative requirements of R.C. 4511.19(D) are substantially complied with and expert testimony is offered. We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Justice O’Connor wrote.
Justice O’Connor’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Robert R. Cupp.
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer entered a dissent in which Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer concurred. “The court’s holding today is contrary to the plain language of R.C. 4511.19, defeats whatever purpose the General Assembly had in supplying a hard time limit, and appears to be based on little more than ‘we did something similar once before,’” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “I dissent and would hold that the test results were inadmissible because the sample was taken more than two hours after the alleged violation.”
Justice Terrence O’Donnell entered a separate dissent stating that in his view the case is a matter of simple statutory construction.
“My departure from the majority view in this case is a purely factual one,” Justice O’Donnell wrote. “Under no circumstances could a sample withdrawn seven to eight hours after an alleged violation constitute either actual or substantial compliance with the time requirement set forth in the applicable version of R.C. 4511.19(D)(1). I would hold that the state has failed to comply with the statutory directive to timely withdraw the blood sample from Hassler for chemical analysis, and therefore, this evidence should not be admitted at trial, as the statute does not authorize its admission into evidence.”
ContactsPaul L. Scarsella, 740.833.2690, for the State of Ohio and Delaware County prosecutor’s office.
Anthony M. Heald, 740.363.1369, for Michael Hassler.
This article was taken from the Ohio Supreme Court Web Site, http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/Communications_Office/summaries/2007/0927/061517.asp