Medina County Courthouse

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Intent to Use Item to Violate Federal Law Qualifies as Intent to Use 'Criminally' Under Ohio Statute

Court Holds ‘Criminal Tools’ Statute Not Limited to State Law Violations

State v Chappell, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-5991.
Cuyahoga App. No. 92455, 2009-Ohio-5371. Judgment of the court of appeals reversed, and cause remanded to the trial court.
Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Brown, C.J., and Pfeifer, J., dissent.

(Dec. 15, 2010) In a decision announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that possession of an item with a purpose to use it to violate a federal law is sufficient to support a finding that a defendant intended to use that item “criminally” in violation of R.C. 2923.24(A), Ohio’s “criminal tools” statute.

The Court’s 5-2 decision, authored by Justice Maureen O’Connor, reversed a ruling by the 8th District Court of Appeals.

The case involved Welton Chappell of Cleveland, who was indicted on two counts of criminal simulation, one count of receiving stolen property, and one count of possessing criminal tools in violation of R.C. 2923.24. The charges arose after police found in excess of 1,000 “bootleg” DVDs and CDs, other “sleeves,” computers, a laptop computer, and other items in Chappell’s vehicle while executing a search warrant.

The case proceeded to trial, and after granting Chappell’s motion for acquittal on the receiving-stolen-property count, the trial court declared a mistrial on the remaining counts after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Chappell subsequently moved to dismiss the indictment, and the trial court dismissed all of the charges with the exception of possessing criminal tools.

Chappell then moved for a supplemental bill of particulars, requesting that the state identify the specific law or laws that Chappell intended to violate with the criminal tools. The prosecutor provided a supplemental bill of particulars specifying that the criminal conduct underlying the criminal tools charge was Chappell’s intent to violate criminal provisions of federal copyright laws.

Chappell moved to dismiss the criminal-tools count. Among other legal arguments, he asserted that only a defendant’s purpose to commit an offense defined in the Ohio Revised Code could support a finding under R.C. 2923.24(A) of intent to use materials “criminally.” The trial court granted the motion to dismiss the criminal tools charge, holding that because the indictment and bill of particulars alleged only an intended violation of federal law, the prosecution did not identify an underlying “criminal” act that Chappell intended to commit. On review, the 8th District Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court. The prosecutor sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 8th District’s decision.

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice O’Connor noted that because the term “criminally” is not defined in R.C. 2923.24, the Court must determine the legislative intent underlying the statute by applying the plain and ordinary meaning of that term.

She wrote: “The term ‘criminally’ has varying definitions, including (1) according to criminal law, (2) in a criminal manner, i.e., in violation of law, and (3) reprehensively, disgracefully, or shamefully. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1986). The most relevant of the three definitions in today’s case are ‘according to criminal law’ and ‘in a criminal manner, i.e., in violation of law.’ When either definition of ‘criminally’ is used in the context of possessing criminal tools under R.C. 2923.24(A), the statutory language is susceptible of only one interpretation: the ordinary meaning of ‘criminally’ is not limited to violations of Ohio law and plainly encompasses violations of any law, including offenses defined under Ohio law and federal law.”

“If the legislature had intended the narrow view advocated by Chappell, it could have so provided in R.C. 2923.24 by expressly stating that the tools must be possessed with the purpose to use them ‘in violation of Ohio law’ or ‘criminally in violation of Ohio law’ or ‘in violation of a criminal offense against the state.’ But the General Assembly did not do so. Because the language set forth by the General Assembly is clear and definite, we must apply it as written and hold that ‘criminally,’ as it is used in R.C. 2923.24, encompasses violations of all law, including federal law.”

“ ... (W)e hold that, in accordance with the plain and ordinary meaning of the term ‘criminally,’ as the term is used in R.C. 2923.24(A), the purpose to use an item criminally can arise from an intended violation of federal law. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this court’s opinion.

Justice O’Connor’s opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp.

Chief Justice Eric Brown entered a dissent, joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, stating that in his view the majority’s holding is contrary to unambiguous language in R.C. 2901.03(A) stating that “[n]o conduct constitutes a criminal offense against the state unless it is defined as an offense in the Revised Code.”

The Chief Justice wrote: “[T]he majority attempts to use R.C. 2901.04(D) to expand the definition of a crime to include violations of existing or former laws of this state, other states, the United States, and municipalities. Such an interpretation renders the actual language of R.C. 2901.03(A) meaningless and thwarts the clearly expressed intent of the General Assembly.”

Thorin Freeman, 216.443.7800, for the state and Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office.

Joseph T. McGinness, 216.525.0553, for Welton Chappell.

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