Drunk but not guilty: Nearly 40 percent of OVI suspects not convicted

The Following Story Appeared in the Chillicothe Gazette, August 25,2013

Aug. 25, 2013
Written by Jessie Balmert

Annie Rooney devoted her professional life to protecting the victims of domestic violence and alcohol abuse. If Chillicothe legal officials had followed her example, the 36-year-old might still be alive, her brother, Walt Rooney, said.

Instead, the habitual traffic offender who collided with Rooney on July 4 was given chance after chance after chance.

Across Ohio, nearly four out of every 10 people cited by police for driving impaired, about 23,000 motorists, weren’t convicted of the charge, according to 2012 Ohio Supreme Court statistics released last month.

The driver who stuck Rooney, Shira B. Seymour, 36, of Bainbridge, has been in seven crashes in the past 13 years and racked up 16 traffic convictions ranging from seat belt violations and speeding tickets to driving past a stopped school bus and operating a vehicle while under the influence. Seymour’s blood alcohol content was nearly double the legal limit when she struck Annie Rooney’s SUV on U.S. 50, according to lab reports.

“This activity was just permitted to go on indefinitely,” Annie’s father, Rick Rooney, said.

Rick and his wife, Carole, suggested mandatory training for bartenders to spot impaired individuals and breathalyzers attached to the ignition of convicted OVI offenders’ cars to stem the problem.

Numbers reported to the Ohio Supreme Court suggest Ross County has the worst conviction rate for operating a vehicle while under the influence in the state, with just 11.2 percent of drunken drivers who were charged with OVIs actually convicted of the original charge last year.

Conviction rates for OVI offenses varied wildly across the state with some courts convicting 90 percent of offenders on the original charge and others convicting less than 25 percent, according to the state supreme court’s numbers. That variability means every drunken driver stopped on Ohio’s roads doesn’t have the same shot at incarceration.

Variations abound

Of the 23 criminal and traffic cases filed against Seymour in Chillicothe Municipal Court, nine had at least one charge reduced or dismissed, two are still pending and no charges have been filed regarding the July 4 crash to date. Two cases initially charged as OVIs were reduced to failure to maintain physical control — being impaired while in the driver’s seat of a vehicle without driving.

“I just can’t imagine that this would have happened in any other setting,” Rick Rooney said. “There are a lot of questions that haunt us.”

But Chillicothe Law Director Sherri Rutherford said the way Chillicothe Municipal Court Clerk Lisa Large reports numbers to the Ohio Supreme Court makes her office’s conviction rate look much worse than it actually is. A review of Chillicothe Municipal Court records put the 2012 OVI conviction rate at about 61 percent.

Concerns about reporting variations are shared by other law directors and are the subject of an Ohio Supreme Court advisory group’s review.

Still, a CentralOhio.com review of OVI cases filed in March 2013 revealed differences in how courts handle drunken driving. In Muskingum County, 82.1 percent of cases resulted in convictions to the original charge. In Richland County, 36.7 percent of the first 30 OVIs resulted in convictions to that charge — lower than average for the county. Licking and Ross counties fell in the middle with 60 and 62 percent convicted of the original OVI, respectively.

Rutherford said it’s important to look at the facts of each case. While Seymour is a “terrible driver,” there was little Rutherford’s office could do legally to stop her, the law director said.

“Obviously, you’d like to think you could have done something to change things. But people drive even if they don’t have a license,” Rutherford said.

Seymour’s license, which had been suspended previously, had no restrictions at the time of the fatal collision. Lacee Seymour, Shira’s sister, declined to comment. Seymour remains at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University being treated for injuries from the crash.

‘A horrific problem’

Variability in OVI penalties is disheartening, but not surprising, said Doug Scoles, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Ohio. Whether a person is convicted of driving impaired depends largely on who’s prosecuting the case and who’s on the bench, he said.

“There are certain counties that are not doing a great job at all,” Scoles said.

Ohio’s police officers don’t have control over whether prosecutors reduce or dismiss OVI offenses, said Michael Weinman, director of government affairs for the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio. Their only recourse is to rescind the fraternal order’s endorsement of judges or law directors, he added.

“It does get frustrating for officers if they get pleaded down,” Weinman said.

Rutherford said every OVI case isn’t going to result in a conviction because problems with evidence and human error will play a role. Still, she’s satisfied with the job her office does in prosecuting drunken drivers.

Operating a vehicle while under the influence is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by at least three days and up to six months in county jail, a $2,500 fine and temporary loss of driving privileges on the first offense. Repeat offenses can lead to stiffer penalties and felony charges.

Drivers who had their cases reduced often pleaded guilty to reckless operation, a minor to third-degree misdemeanor assessed for driving without regard for the safety of people or property, or having physical control of vehicle while under the influence, a first-degree misdemeanor like OVIs, but without the mandatory jail time. Both alternatives not only lessened penalties for that offense, but for future offenses as well.

Reducing or dismissing OVI charges sends the wrong message to offenders and can leave dangerous people behind the wheel, Scoles said. Last year, 12,545 crashes and 431 that resulted in fatalities were alcohol-related, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol.

“You don’t want offenders to slip through the cracks,” Scoles said.

Rob Calesaric, a Newark defense attorney and co-chair of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ DUI committee, said he’s experienced the differences in prosecution of OVI offenses firsthand. Some courts frequently reduce OVI offenses to reckless operation violations while others never will.

They’re no rhyme or reason to the differences except politics, Calesaric said. MADD is a powerful organization, and some judges don’t want to be seen as soft on drunken drivers, even if the facts don’t support a conviction, he added.

These differences mean the Rooneys, like so many other families, are left wondering: If Seymour had faced another court system, would she still have been on the road? Would Annie be preparing for her next bike ride or yoga session?

“We’re all going to be angry for the rest of our lives,” Walt Rooney said. “It’s just a horrific problem.”

Shira Seymour’s past violations

• On Jan. 4, 1997, Shira B. Seymour, then 19, was stopped for driving impaired. She was convicted of operating a vehicle while under the influence and her license was suspended.

• On Nov. 24, 1999 and Dec. 31, 1999, Seymour received speeding tickets for driving 70 mph and 69 mph in 55 mile per hour zones.

• On March 24, 2000, Seymour was involved in a crash.

• On Nov. 20, 2001, Seymour was caught speeding in Waverly.

• On March 30, 2003, Seymour was cited for an improper turn in Chillicothe Municipal Court following a crash.

• On June 11, 2006, Seymour was cited for speeding after driving 72 mph in a 55 mph zone.

• On Jan. 19, 2007, she was cited for speeding after driving 71 mph in a 55 mph zone in Circleville.

• On March 12, 2008, Seymour was cited with OVI and failing to dim her high beams in Chillicothe. She refused a blood alcohol content test. The case was reduced to physical control because Seymour had not been observed driving.

• On June 6, 2008, Seymour rear-ended another vehicle on U.S. 50. She initially was charged for driving without an operator’s license and failure to maintain assured clear distance. The first charge was dismissed.

• On July 24, 2011, Seymour struck a vehicle turning from U.S. 50 onto South Walnut Street. Seymour was initially charged with hit skip but the charge was reduced to failure to yield.

• On Aug. 5, 2011, Seymour crashed into a vehicle on Ohio 104. No one was injured.

• On May 27, 2012, Seymour was cited for speeding.

• On Aug. 31, 2012, Seymour was cited for failing to stop for a school bus.

• On Oct. 4, 2012, Seymour drove off the side of U.S. 50 and overturned in a ditch. Seymour was charged with OVI, but the charge was later reduced to physical control. Neither her alcohol nor marijuana levels were above the legal limit, and the law director’s office did not want to hire an expert to testify about her reported impairment because no one was injured.

• On July 4, 2013, Seymour collided with Annie Rooney’s vehicle on U.S. 50. Rooney died of injuries from the crash early July 5. Seymour, whose blood alcohol content was nearly two times the legal limit, had not been charged for the crash to date. Sources: Chillicothe Municipal Court records, Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Chillicothe Law Director Sherri Rutherford, Ohio Department of Public Safety crash reports. List does not include non-traffic or seat-belt violations.

Reporters Mark Caudill and Patrick O’Neill contributed to this article.

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