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Supreme Court rules that arson registry law is constitutional

Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: November 20, 2023

A state law that requires a recommendation from a prosecutor and law enforcement agency to reduce an arson offender’s registration obligation is constitutional, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled recently.
A divided Supreme Court rejected a Toledo man’s challenge to a law that imposes a lifetime registration requirement for certain arson offenders. Tyree Daniel claimed the provision that allows a judge to reduce the registration requirement only after receiving a recommendation from executive branch officials violates the “separation of powers” doctrine of the Ohio Constitution.
Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated that there is no violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Justice DeWine explained that the registration requirement is not part of Daniel’s criminal sentence. He also explained that even if the registration requirement was considered to be part of Daniel’s sentence, the legislature has the power to prescribe criminal sentences, and nothing requires that courts be afforded discretion in imposing a sentence prescribed by the legislature.
The decision affirmed the Sixth District Court of Appeals decision that found the law constitutional. The Court announced it took the case to resolve the conflict between the Sixth District and the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which in a 2017 ruling found the registration reduction provision unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices Melody Stewart and Joseph T. Deters joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Justice Stewart wrote a separate concurring opinion, stating the current law is “primed for abuse” and that lawmakers should rewrite the statute with more details on how it should be applied.
Justice Patrick F. Fischer dissented, stating that the registration requirement is part of the criminal sentence and that the provision is a separation of powers violation.
In a decision concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Jennifer Brunner agreed with the majority that the case needed to be resolved based on the Ohio Constitution rather than the U.S. Constitution. However, she wrote, the law is unconstitutional. Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Brunner’s opinion.
Arson Registration Law Has Single Exception
In 2013, lawmakers enacted R.C. 2909.13, which established a registry for people convicted of arson-related crimes. The law applies to those convicted of arson, aggravated arson, and related arson offenses. Arson offenders are required to register annually for life with the sheriff of the county in which they reside.
Under R.C. 2909.15(D)(2)(b), there is one exception to lifetime registration. If the judge that sentenced the offender “receives a request from the prosecutor and the investigating law enforcement agency to consider limiting the arson offender’s registration period,” then the judge can limit the duty to register to a period of 10 years or more.
The arson offender receives notice of the duty to register in one of two ways. If the offender is sentenced to jail or prison, then the correctional institution must provide the registration notice to the offender before the person is released. If the offender is not incarcerated, the sentencing judge provides notice.
Offender Challenged Law
In 2019, Daniel was a part of a group that set fire to a commercial building in Toledo. He supplied the lighter fluid and a lighter and was caught on video dousing the building’s door with lighter fluid. Daniel was indicted on two counts of aggravated arson, but agreed to plead guilty to one count of arson, a fourth-degree felony.
Daniel was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years of community control. At his sentencing, he objected to the arson registration requirement. Citing the Fourth District’s State v. Dingus decision, Daniel argued the law was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers between the branches of government in the Ohio Constitution.
Because neither the prosecutor nor the investigating law enforcement agency requested that Daniel receive a reduced notification requirement, the judge notified him that he was required to register for life. Daniel signed a form titled “Notice of Duties to Register as An Arson Offender.”
Daniel appealed the Sixth District, which concluded the reduced arson registration period law was constitutional.
Daniel appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case and resolve the conflict with the Fourth District’s Dingus decision.
Supreme Court Analyzed Separation of Powers
Justice DeWine explained that powers of government are allocated to three distinct branches – the executive, legislative, and judicial. While the term “separation of powers” is not included in the state constitution, the Supreme Court has long recognized by the structure of the document that each branch has its own powers and none is to encroach on the powers of the others.
The state constitution vests Ohio’s courts with “the judicial power.” The opinion noted this has historically been understood to mean the judicial branch has the power to decide cases and render judgments, and in doing so, provide definitive interpretations of the law. That includes determining the guilt or innocence in a criminal case and pronouncing a sentence. While judges get to issue sentences, the Court noted that the judicial branch “does not possess exclusive control in the realm of criminal sentencing.” The opinion explained that the legislative and executive branches share power when it comes to sentencing, with the legislature having the power to define crimes and prescribe the punishment for the crimes.
Daniel argued the law impermissibly infringes on the judicial power to impose a sentence by limiting the judge’s right to reduce the registration requirement without first receiving consent from executive branch officials.
The Court stated that under the law, a judge does not sentence an arson offender to a period of registration. The law itself requires lifetime registration. There is no choice by the judge to determine whether registration will be imposed. The judge’s only role is to notify certain offenders of the requirement, the opinion stated.
The Court further explained that even if the duty to register were part of the criminal sentence, Daniel’s argument would still fail because there is nothing that requires judges to have discretion in implementing sentences proscribed by the legislature.
“That it has, in this instance, chosen to permit the court to reduce the registration period in some cases and not others is of no consequence for separation-of-powers purposes,” the Court concluded.
Law Walks Fine Line, Concurring Opinion Asserted
In her concurring opinion, Justice Stewart wrote the “statute walks a fine line” because it provides no guidance to anyone involved as to how it should be applied. The law gives prosecutors and law enforcement complete discretion to determine who is worthy of receiving a reduced registration, but there are no criteria to determine who should be eligible. Likewise, the court is told it can reduce the period to no less than 10 years, but the law does not provide any factors to determine the appropriate registration period, the concurring opinion stated.
“There is no logical reason for R.C. 2909.15(D)(2)(b) to permit a one-sided and potentially biased decision regarding registration period reduction. Instead, there should be an equal opportunity for the state and the defense to propose or contest a reduction,” Justice Stewart wrote.
Registration Part of Sentence, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Fischer agreed with the majority opinion that the requirement to register is triggered by the law and the requirement is imposed when the offender is convicted. But, he noted, a “conviction” occurs only when there is a finding of guilt and a sentence. Because the only time a judge can reduce the registration requirement is during sentencing, then the registration duty must be part of the sentence, he maintained.
The executive branch cannot interfere with the judicial branch’s authority to issue a sentence, and under this law, the judge cannot consider reducing the portion of the sentence dealing with registration without first getting approval from the executive branch, the dissent stated.
“How can the people of Ohio count on an independent and fair criminal-justice system when members of the executive branch who are at the heart of a prosecution are able to conclusively tell the judiciary that a particular sentence may not be imposed?” the dissent stated.
The law is a separation of powers violation because the General Assembly improperly delegated judicial authority to two arms of the executive branch, Justice Fischer concluded.
Law Can Be Revised to Be Constitutional, Opinion Suggested
In her concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Brunner wrote the General Assembly was free to require lifetime registration, and it was free to allow a sentencing court to reduce the registration period, but it could not limit the court’s constitutional role by requiring prior approval of the prosecutor and investigating law enforcement agency as a prerequisite for a judge to exercise discretion and reduce the registration period.
Under the Ohio Constitution, the Supreme Court could remove the portion of the law that violates the separation of powers, she wrote. The Court could strike the registration reduction provision and require all arson offenders to register for life. Or it could eliminate the sentence in the law requiring the agreement of the prosecutor and police, and simply allow the sentencing court to decide whether to reduce the sentence, Justice Brunner wrote. Because the government bodies that brought the charge against the offender get to decide on the amount of time for registration, the law as it now stands allows the “accuser” to become the judge, she wrote.
2022-0603. State v. Daniel, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4035.