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Sentence That Omits Mandatory License Suspension Ruled Void, Resentencing Limited to Imposing Required Suspension

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2011-0008 and 2011-0010.  State v. Harris, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1908.
Cuyahoga App. No. 95128, 190 Ohio App.3d 417, 2010-Ohio-5374.  Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Lanzinger, J., dissents.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-1908.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(May 3, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that when a trial court is legally required to impose a driver license suspension as part of the sentence for a criminal offense, but omits that penalty when pronouncing sentence on a defendant, the sentence pronounced by the court is void and the defendant must be resentenced, but the resentencing is limited to imposition of the required suspension. 

In a separate syllabus holding, the court ruled that a trial court’s  journal entry recording a defendant’s conviction need not take note of a property forfeiture ordered by the court in order to be a “final, appealable order” under Ohio Criminal Rule 32(C).

The court’s 6-1 decision, authored by Justice Yvette McGee Brown, partially affirmed and partially reversed rulings by the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

The case involved two separate criminal prosecutions of Mario Harris Jr. of Cleveland in June 2008.

In the first case, Harris entered guilty pleas to charges of drug trafficking with schoolyard, firearm and forfeiture specifications, and possession of a firearm while under disability. The court imposed a prison sentence of five years and ordered forfeiture of property specified in the indictment, but failed to mention the forfeiture order in its journal entry recording Harris’ convictions and sentence. Harris subsequently filed a motion for resentencing, which the trial court denied.  On Harris’ appeal, the Eighth District ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to consider his claim because omission of the forfeiture from the trial court’s sentencing entry meant that entry was not a “final” order subject to appeal.

In the second case, Harris pleaded guilty to drug trafficking with an automobile forfeiture specification. The trial court imposed a prison sentence and ordered forfeiture, but failed to impose a suspension of Harris’ driver license that was mandatory under R.C. 2925.03. In 2010 Harris moved for resentencing based on the omission of a mandatory element from his sentence.  The trial court denied that motion. On review the Eighth District held that the sentence imposed by the trial court was void, and remanded the case for resentencing.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments addressing the Eighth District’s rulings in both cases.

With regard to whether the omission of a mandatory driver license suspension from Harris’ sentence rendered that sentence void, Justice McGee Brown reviewed a line of decisions culminating in State v. Fischer (2010), in which the Supreme Court held that a criminal sentence that omitted a mandatory term of postrelease control was void and the defendant must be resentenced, but the scope of the resentencing was limited to imposition of the required term of postrelease control.

In affirming that it was appropriate to extend the legal analysis of Fischer to Harris’ case, Justice McGee Brown wrote: “(A) mandatory driver’s license suspension is akin to postrelease control. Like postrelease control, a driver’s license suspension is required by law to be part of an offender’s sentence. ... In addition, if a trial court fails to include either mandatory term, the executive branch is unable to impose either postrelease control or a driver’s license suspension once an offender leaves prison. ... Unlike the imposition of court costs, a mandatory driver’s license suspension is a criminal sanction.  Because a mandatory driver’s license suspension is a statutorily mandated term, we hold that a trial court’s failure to include this term in a criminal sentence renders the sentence void in part. ...  Our conclusion reflects the well-established principle that a court acts contrary to law if it fails to impose a statutorily required term as part of an offender’s sentence.”

“As we discussed in Fischer, the scope of relief is a critical aspect of void judgments.  ... We held that ‘when a judge fails to impose statutorily mandated postrelease control as part of a defendant’s sentence, that part of the sentence is void and must be set aside.’  ...  Although we explicitly limited our decision to those cases in which a court does not properly impose a statutorily mandated period of postrelease control, .... we find the same logic in Fischer to be controlling when it comes to other statutorily mandatory terms. ... Therefore, we hold that when a trial court fails to include a mandatory driver’s license suspension as part of an offender’s sentence, that part of the sentence is void. We further hold that resentencing of the offender is limited to the imposition of the mandatory driver’s license suspension.” 

The court disagreed with the Eighth District’s holding that a trial court’s forfeiture finding against a defendant must be included in its judgment entry in order to make that entry a “final, appealable order.” 

Justice McGee Brown wrote: “We held in State v. Baker (2008) that a judgment of conviction complies with Crim.R. 32(C) when it sets forth four essential elements. ... We have since clarified those elements to be (1) the fact of conviction, (2) the sentence, (3) the signature of the judge, and (4) entry on the journal by the clerk of courts. ... If a judgment of conviction includes these substantive provisions, it is a final order subject to appeal under R.C. 2505.02.”

“In Harris I, the Eighth District held that because the sentencing entry failed to include any information about the forfeiture specifications, the entry was not a final, appealable order. ... However, to reach this conclusion, the forfeiture would necessarily have had to fall within the scope of one of the four essential elements. We do not find that a forfeiture constitutes any of the substantive requirements necessary for compliance with Crim.R. 32(C).” 

In addition, Justice McGee Brown wrote, “(A)n order of forfeiture is not a sentence. R.C. 2929.01(EE) provides that the word ‘sentence’ means ‘the sanction or combination of sanctions imposed by the sentencing court on an offender who is convicted of or pleads guilty to an offense.’  ... In  Harris I, Harris pleaded guilty to one count of drug trafficking in violation of R.C. 2925.03(A)(1) and one count of having a weapon while under a disability in violation of R.C. 2923.13(A)(3), with the attendant forfeiture specifications. Neither statute required forfeiture to be included as a punishment for Harris’s offenses.  Forfeiture is a civil, not criminal, penalty. Accordingly, the trial court was not required to include forfeiture of items in the judgment of conviction.” 

“We hold that when a trial court fails to impose a mandatory driver’s license suspension as part of an offender’s sentence, that part of the sentence is void; resentencing is limited to the imposition of the statutorily mandated term. We further hold that a journal entry of conviction need not include a related forfeiture in order to be a final, appealable order pursuant to Crim.R. 32(C). The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed, and the cause is remanded.”

Justice McGee Brown’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell and Robert R. Cupp.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger entered a dissent in which she reiterated her disagreement with the majority’s holdings in prior decisions, including Fischer, that a criminal sentence that omits a mandatory term of postrelease control is void, but that defect could be cured by a resentencing limited to insertion of the omitted item.

“Because a void sentence would be a legal nullity, a defendant who is subjected to a void sentence should receive the benefit of the resentencing mandated by R.C. 2929.19.  Instead, the majority offers a limited resentencing in violation of defendants’ due process rights,” wrote Justice Lanzinger. “(In Fischer) it was stated ‘Our decision today is limited to a discrete vein of cases: those in which a court does not properly impose a statutorily mandated period of postrelease control.’ ... Thus, only error in imposing postrelease control was to be treated differently from other types of sentencing errors and was justified by a ‘discrete’ and ‘narrow’ line of cases.”

“But although supposedly its application was to be limited, Fischer’sreach now appears to extend to driver’s license suspension. Soon it will apply to every type of error relating to a mandatory sentencing term − hardly a narrow or discrete exception.  Any sentence imposed without a mandatory term (in this case, a license suspension) will be labeled void, but ‘void’ in the meaning of the Princess Bride − being not dead, just mostly dead − because defendants are being denied the true remedy for a void judgment, a complete resentencing.”

Justice Lanzinger also dissented from the majority’s conclusion that a forfeiture is not part of a criminal sentence.  She noted in State v. Hill that “we previously determined that forfeiture is a form of punishment for a specific offense and is in the nature of a fine.”

Matthew Meyer, 216.443.7800, for the state and Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office.

Sarah G. LoPresti, 614.728.8865, for Mario Harris.