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September 11, 2004

Ohio v. Scheer: a Rosetta Stone for sentencing reform?

I have previously discussed at length the fascinating challenges of figuring out what Blakely's formal rule might mean for Ohio's functional sentencing laws (see posts here and here and here). Yesterday, I found an intermediate Ohio appellate court decision, Ohio v. Scheer, 2004 WL 2008628 (Ohio App. 4 Dist. Sept. 1, 2004), which is fascinating for both Blakely and non-Blakely reasons. (Strangely, the decision is dated September 1, but only first appeared on-line yesterday.)

Rosetta_stone
Though a fairly run-of-the-mill case, I think Scheer could be seen as a Rosetta Stone of sentencing reform. So many insights might be drawn from the case's facts and the court's ruling, careful study of the decision could, like the famed stone of Rosetta which helped scholars better understand the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics (background here and here), help scholars better understand the dynamics and challenges of modern sentencing reform. Let me try to explain.

Scheer involved appeal of a "sentence to the maximum, consecutive term of twelve months imprisonment for each of two counts of passing bad checks." Those familiar with Ohio law already can see how the case raises at least two Blakely issues, since a sentencing judge in Ohio must make certain findings before imposing a maximum term and also before imposing consecutive sentences. Adding to the intrigue, Scheer's two conviction followed a plea bargain in which "the State dismissed the remaining two counts of the indictment [which alleged more serious felonies] and agreed to recommend a sentence of community control sanctions if Scheer made full restitution to the victim in the amount of $89,698.81 prior to the sentencing hearing." If Scheer did not make restitution prior to sentencing, the State recommend six months on each count and a court order of restitution. The case thus also raises interesting questions about the impact of prosecutorial discretion and the use of alternatives to incarceration.

The story of Scheer goes on: "Scheer failed to appear at the original sentencing hearing, and was subsequently arrested on a warrant issued by the court. At the time of the sentencing hearing, Scheer had not made restitution." The court then — after making lengthy on-the-record statements referencing the seriousness of the dismissed counts, that the "Defendant has a lengthy and extensive criminal history ... and shows no genuine remorse concerning his actions herein," that the "victim in this case has suffered substantial economic harm," and the "purposes and principles under 2929.11 of the Ohio Revised Code," — concluded that Scheer "is not amenable to available community control sanctions." Based on all these consideration, the trial court thus "sentenced Scheer to twelve months incarceration on each count, the maximum sentence for a fifth degree felony, and ordered that the sentences run consecutively. The court also ordered Scheer to make full restitution to the victim."

The defendant in Scheer objected to some of the sentencing court's findings regarding his criminal history and lack of remorse, and thus the case raises a range of consequential Blakely procedural issues. And, of course, the judge's sentencing decision implicates broader substantive questions about consideration of "dismissed" conduct, criminal history, victim harms, lack of remorse, and "purposes and principles."

In an extremely thoughtful and yet still opaque ruling, the appeals court in Scheer rejects the defendant's Blakely claim, though without addressing every possible Blakely issue. The court also rejects the substance of the defendant's other legal and factual challenges to the sentencing court's decision. However the appeals court still reverses and remands Scheer's sentence with a ruling that raises questions about the importance of written sentencing findings and appellate review. According to the appeals court, the sentencing court's findings were not sufficiently linked to its final sentencing determination:

Although the court made the requisite findings, it did not state the rationale or reasons that support those findings for either the maximum or consecutive sentences. The court made certain factual findings when it determined that community control sanctions were inappropriate and imposed a prison sentence; however, the court never indicated that it was relying on some or all of these findings in imposing maximum or consecutive sentences.... While we recognize that it might seem we are elevating form over substance as the court's reasons for imposing the sentences might be gleaned from the transcript as a whole, the Supreme Court of Ohio has indicated that it will require strict compliance with the provisions of the sentencing statutes. Since the trial court did not specify which of its findings it relied upon in imposing maximum and consecutive sentences, we must reverse and remand this matter to the trial court for further action consistent with this opinion.

September 11, 2004 at 03:42 PM | Permalink

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