The State Must Prove "Operation" In Order to Establish an OVI at Trial
A judge in the Fairfield County Municipal Court in Lancaster recently dismissed an OVI case in the middle of a bench trial for lack of evidence of “operation.” State v. Oney, 2023-Ohio-2474. In order to prove an OVI at trial, the prosecutor must provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was operating a vehicle while under the influence. If they can’t prove operation, they can’t prove a defendant guilty of an OVI.
Defendant Admits to Having One Drink and to Driving; Fails Field Sobriety Tests
Two police officers were called to a place in Reynoldsburg because a man and a woman were yelling at each other. When they got there, they saw a man and a woman sitting on the ground near an AT&T store. The woman, the defendant, seemed very upset, and the man was holding her. She explained to the officers that she was emotional because she had recently lost a baby.
The officers asked if she had been drinking, and she said she had one drink earlier. She told him she had been driving but stopped in the parking lot because she was feeling emotional. While talking, the officer noted the defendant smelled like alcohol, her eyes were red and watery, and she was speaking in a way that was hard to understand. He asked if she would do some tests to check if she was drunk, and she agreed.
She failed all the field sobriety tests. Since she had admitted to driving earlier, and the officers didn’t see any evidence that she had been drinking after she parked, they arrested her for OVI under ORC 4311.19(A)(1)(a). She had a prior OVI and refused to submit to any breath, blood or urine tests.
Judge Dismisses Case During Bench Trial
At the bench trial, the State presented its evidence and rested. Defendant’s attorney moved for acquittal under Criminal Rule 29(A). This is a motion that argues the State failed to meet its burden of proof. Here, she argued that the state failed to prove operation in the testimony heard at trial.
In opposition, the State argued that the officer’s body cam video showed the defendant admitting that she operated the vehicle ten minutes before to the officers arrived. The officers saw indications of impairment (i.e. smelled alcohol, watery eyes, slurring words) and she had admitted to drinking. The State said this was circumstantial evidence of operation.
The judge disagreed, finding insufficient evidence to show that Defendant was driving while impaired. She was 25 to 35 yards from the car when the officers arrived. The car was turned off and locked. There was no accident. She told the officers she pulled over due to her mental health. The court found there was no indication there was impaired driving, based in part on one of the officers who testified he could not say Defendant was impaired when she was driving. Thus, the case was dismissed.
The State appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, which dismissed the appeal on procedural grounds.