THE Ohio Supreme Court's narrow decision in a Dayton aggravated vehicular homicide case will be cheered by criminal defense lawyers throughout the Buckeye State, but it seriously obstructs public efforts to rid the highways of dangerous drunken drivers.
The court, voting 4-3 in a ruling written by Justice Judith Lanzinger, threw out the conviction of John Mayl, who was at the wheel of a pickup truck that struck and killed a construction worker, Lorna Dingess, 30. The woman was part of a work crew repairing potholes on I-75 in Dayton around midnight on Nov. 19, 2000.
About 40 minutes after the incident, a sample of Mayl's blood was taken in a hospital during treatment for minor injuries. The test put his blood-alcohol content at 0.207, more than twice the state's 0.08 threshold to prove drunken driving and, thus, aggravated vehicular homicide.
It would seem like a slam-dunk case, but the court ruled the test was invalid and threw out the conviction because the hospital was not certified by the state health department to perform the forensic procedure for use in court, and because it disposed of the blood sample within five days rather than holding it for one year.
According to the court decision, no one quibbled with the accuracy of the blood test, or claimed that the blood analysis was conducted improperly by hospital personnel or the laboratory.
While we are mindful that the law must be scrupulously followed, this is one of those cases that rends the heart of anyone who expects justice in the courts. The perpetrator of the crime is acquitted, but the victim is still dead.
Mayl, who had objected to the blood test but was told it was needed for medical reasons, did not go entirely unpunished. He pleaded no contest, was given a four-year prison term, and served a year before being released on appeal.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court - which reversed opinions by at least six state appellate courts with its ruling - has made it unnecessarily difficult for authorities to gain convictions in drunken driving cases. None of Toledo's hospitals currently is certified by the state for these particular tests, even though doing so seems to be largely a matter of paperwork rather than expertise or equipment.
This means that perfectly competent hospitals and laboratories must now go to the considerable extra trouble of obtaining health department permits, or the legislature must amend the law, or both. The sooner a solution is accomplished, the safer that motorists will be in this state.
The DUI law already is among the most complicated and heavily nuanced statutes in Ohio's law books, a legacy of the bad old days when drunken driving was winked at rather than vigorously prosecuted. Creating an additional hoop for authorities to jump through to get convictions is probably not what the court intended, but that is the practical effect of its ruling.
It is especially distressing when the list of Ohioans with a dozen or more DUI arrests continues to grow.