In the criminal justice system there are a lot of steps – police investigation and arrest, the indictment, a trial and a verdict – before the court gets to the sentencing phase of the process. Here at the Supreme Court of Ohio we recently reviewed a case that focused on the issue of sentencing – specifically, the question concerned whether a trial court may impose consecutive sentences for felony and misdemeanor convictions under the pertinent sentencing law. The case involved a man named Walter Polus.
Polus ran afoul of the law because, on two occasions he purchased tools that he suspected were stolen and later offered them for sale. The state sought and eventually acquired a grand-jury indictment that charged Polus in February 2013 with two fifth-degree felony counts of receiving stolen property. Later, the state asked the trial court to amend the second count to a first-degree misdemeanor, and in return Polus agreed to plead guilty to those two charges.
The trial court accepted the guilty pleas to the charges as amended. The court sentenced Polus to serve an 11-month term in prison for the felony and a six-month term for the misdemeanor. The court ordered Polus to serve the felony and misdemeanor sentences consecutively – meaning, one after the other.
Thereafter, in a separate case involving other charges, Polus pled guilty to – and was convicted of – two fifth-degree felony counts of receiving stolen property. The court imposed two 11-month prison terms for these convictions and ordered Polus to serve them consecutively to one another and to the terms imposed in the case stemming from the February 2013 indictment.
After receiving his sentences, Polus turned to the court of appeals. In making his case before the court of appeals, Polus argued that a sentencing order requiring a jail term for a misdemeanor to be served consecutively to a prison sentence for a felony is contrary to the applicable sentencing law in the Ohio Revised Code.
After reviewing the case, the court of appeals concluded that the language of the sentencing law in question created an ambiguity that must be construed against the state. The court therefore reversed the trial court’s sentencing order insofar as the misdemeanor jail term was consecutive to the felony prison sentence and modified the sentence to run the terms of confinement concurrently.
After that, the case came before us because the court of appeals found that its decision was in conflict with the decisions of two other courts of appeals. In such instances, our court reviews the cases and resolves the conflict.
The threshold issue in this matter was whether the sentencing law is ambiguous. In the normal course, laws mean what they say by their plain language. But when a law presents an ambiguity because of how it is written, we must consider several factors to determine legislative intent. In criminal cases, we construe laws defining offenses or penalties against the state and liberally in favor of the accused.
The sentencing law in question states that except in certain circumstances, “a jail term or sentence of imprisonment for misdemeanor shall be served concurrently with a prison term or sentence of imprisonment for felony served in a state or federal correctional institution.”
However, a later section of the same law says that a jail term shall be served consecutively to any other prison term when the trial court specifies that it is to be served consecutively. Yet another section of the law states that for certain misdemeanor or felony violations, the jail terms shall be served consecutively.
Thus, the court of appeals determined that the sentencing law is ambiguous because those later two sections – the ones that vest the trial court with authority to impose consecutive sentences – conflict with the earlier section that states jail terms shall be served concurrently, which would “appear to prohibit consecutive sentences for a felony and misdemeanor…”
However, we found no ambiguity in the sentencing law. The first sentence of the law enacts the general rule requiring concurrent sentencing with only clearly delineated exceptions. The second sentence of the law creates a more specific rule that speaks directly to the issue in this case: subject only to the exceptions stated later in the law, a trial court must impose concurrent sentences for felony and misdemeanor convictions.
The last time we considered this question – which was in a case from 1991 – we held that the law requires that a sentence imposed for a misdemeanor conviction must be served concurrently with any felony sentence. When we decided that case, the second sentence of the law was slightly different. It opened with the phrase “In any case…” But then, in 2000, the Ohio legislature replaced the phrase “In any case” with the phrase “except as provided in…” Either way, this new language had no effect on our analysis, because it doesn’t apply as an exception to the general rule in favor of concurrent sentencing.
Although some courts of appeals have read the new language to contradict our conclusion in that 1991 case, we do not.
Accordingly, we cannot say that a trial court may impose consecutive sentences for any set of felony and misdemeanor convictions under the sentencing law in question because the law more narrowly circumscribes the authority of the trial courts.
Instead, we concluded that the sentencing law as it is currently written merely requires a sentencing court to impose sentences for certain misdemeanor violations – such as pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor, escape, or possession of a deadly weapon while under detention – consecutively to any other prison term.
Therefore, by a six-to-one vote, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and sent Polus’s case beck to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.
Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.