Cleveland Plain Dealer. February 3, 2023.
Editorial: Full hearings needed on marijuana driving-under-the-influence bill
A Greater Cleveland legislator’s bill would give people arrested for driving or boating under the influence of marijuana a chance to produce evidence they weren’t impaired. That’s important because traces of marijuana can stay in the system for weeks, unlike alcohol, which typically lasts hours or days.
Senate Bill 26 would also set a testing threshold for THC -- tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component of cannabis -- from which a jury could infer impairment, absent proof sufficiently persuasive from the defendant that he or she was driving sober. The bill threads the needle a bit here, since there is no scientifically accepted blood concentration for marijuana that can show impairment.
Prosecutors worry SB 26 would make marijuana impairment difficult, time-consuming and costly to prove, but the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Nathan Manning, a North Ridgeville Republican, lawyer and former city prosecutor, sees SB 26 as a matter of fairness.
With marijuana now legally prescribed in Ohio for medical conditions -- and with the possibility that voters will legalize it for recreational use -- Manning wants to ensure that those arrested for operating a motor vehicle or boat under the influence of marijuana are afforded full due process.
His bill, introduced last month, is similar to last session’s Senate Bill 203, which failed to pass.
SB 203, for which there were only two hearings, was supported by lawyers from the Office of Ohio Public Defender, the Ohio State Bar Association, the DUI Defense Lawyers Association and the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
SB 26 needs a full complement of hearings to examine not just current knowledge of what constitutes marijuana impairment, but also whether testing can show clearer evidence of impairment and, alternatively, whether the scientific uncertainties are just too great to get to the bottom of who’s impaired, and who isn’t.
The scientific gray areas also make it difficult to assess how big a problem marijuana impairment on the roads might be.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, “It’s hard to measure how many crashes are caused by drugged driving. This is because:
— a good roadside test for drug levels in the body doesn’t yet exist
— some drugs (like marijuana) can stay in your system for days or weeks after use, making it difficult to determine when the drug was used, and therefore, how and if it impaired driving.”
Yet marijuana’s effects are not inconsequential.
NIDA reports that, “Marijuana may impair judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving ability. Marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently found in the blood of drivers who have been involved in vehicle crashes, including fatal ones.”
Motorists are entitled to due process, however. And the issue of marijuana impairment could become more acute if, as is possible, a voter-initiated law to legalize marijuana in Ohio (sponsored by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol) reaches the statewide ballot, possibly this November, and passes. A number of Ohio municipalities, including Cleveland and Kent, have reduced, or eliminated, penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
Understandably, the group that represents prosecuting attorneys at the Statehouse -- who prosecute repeat DUI offenders -- have concerns about SB 26. Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told cleveland.com’s Laura Hancock that he believes the measure will “require us to bring in witnesses in a lot of cases and it’s going to lead to more jury trials.”
Manning, on the other hand, said of his bill, “We’re just trying to punish those people who should be punished and not people who are not doing anything really illegal or wrong.”
Still, it’s worth remembering that the number of people driving under the influence of marijuana could be considerable. A 2019 study reported that, in 2018, about 12 million U.S. residents 16 or older “reported driving under the influence of marijuana.”
The risks created by drivers who are in fact under the drug’s influence should not be minimized. But fairness is fairness, and Manning is right in wanting to help Ohio motorists fairly defend themselves when they are mistakenly charged with operating a vehicle while under marijuana’s influence.
Manning’s bill must find the right balance between fairness and courthouse gridlock in a matter like marijuana testing where the science is so murky. The best solution for SB 26? A full set of hearings so the public and lawmakers alike have a clearer idea of the implications of this legislation.
Columbus Dispatch. January 30, 2023.
Editorial: Ohio can’t afford to be No. 1 in corruption. State’s integrity is on trial.
Despite Juicy headlines declaring Ohio Number 1 when it comes to corruption, it is understandable that most are not yet engrossed in the untelevised and unrecorded pay-to-play federal case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges.
Tantalizing allegations involving a private jet and a devious seed planted during a fancy Washington, D.C., steakhouse dinner don’t cut through the complexity of the case involving dark money groups, House Bill 6 — a 2019 law with tenacles that twist in strange and costly ways — and how 501(c)(4)s and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio operate.
Yes, but Ohioans should be paying close attention to what emerges from the trial prosecutors characterized as the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio’s history.
The case involves your hard-earned cash — 4.5 million utility customers would have paid for subsidies for two FirstEnergy nuclear plants for seven years. If allegations are correct, it will shine a light on how those elected to serve may have served themselves at the expense of you, your family and friends.
The opening arguments are easy to break down.
The defense says what prosecutors allege was a scheme to trade dark money for a $1.3 billion bailout was actually business as usual at the statehouse, but prosecutors portray Householder as a power-hungry criminal mastermind who pocketed bribe money.
Prosecutors say he then paid FirstEnergy back by helping the Akron-based company take $1.3 billion from our pockets through House Bill 6 subsidies for two nuclear plants that were underwater.
Feds say you were victimized.
The day in July of 2020 that Householder, Borges, lobbyists Juan Cespedes and Neil Clark, and strategist Jeff Longstreth were charged with racketeering, then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio David DeVillers told reporters the corruption that led to House Bill 6 was “likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”
The portion of House Bill 6 that subsidized those two money-losing FirstEnergy nuclear power plants was repealed in March of 2021, but the legislation is still costing us.
Ohioans are still paying millions for two Ohio Valley Electric Corp. Cold War-era coal plants through electric bill fees and will be through 2030 to an estimated tune of $700 million from the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association.
Proponents say fees for the plants were used as bargaining chips in the heated House Bill 6 fight.
Three Ohio utilities have stake in the coal plants located in Madison, Indiana and Gallia County along the Ohio River near the West Virginia border.
A section of the law dropping the state’s renewable energy standards from 12.5% by 2027 to 8.5% by 2026 is also among the remnants of House Bill 6 that remain.
How investigators say we got here
If prosecutors are right, Ohioans have been sold out and a law has been purchased in exchange for the power that comes with being the Ohio House speaker.
Among the three most powerful positions in state government — the governor and Ohio Senate president being the other two — the person in that role decides if and when bills sponsored by House members reach the House floor for a vote to become law.
Larry Householder held the position from 2001 to 2004. He left the statehouse under the cloud of an investigation into irregular campaign practices for which he was never charged.
Householder returned to the House in 2017 with his eyes on being speaker again, according to reporting by USA TODAY Network Ohio bureau reporters Jessie Balmert and Laura Bischoff, who are covering the fascinating trial’s twists and turns.
Investigators maintain FirstEnergy routed $61 million through dark money political groups which do not have to disclose the name of donors.
Part of that money was used to help Householder regain the speaker position and defeat a referendum against House Bill 6.
That campaign included ads falsely connecting the issue to China and underhanded tactics against Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, a company formed to challenge House Bill 6 on the ballot.
Federal investigators also say Householder used campaign money to repair his Florida home, cover legal fees from a defamation lawsuit settlement and pay off credit card debt.
For his part, investigators say Borges gave $15,000 to Republican strategist Tyler Fehrman for insider information about the ballot initiative.
Borges has denied that, saying he gave Ferhman the money “in consideration for future political projects” and to help his mentee in financial need.
A long saga
The trial is considered the highpoint of the House Bill 6 scandal that has already seen convictions and admissions.
— Longstreth and Cespedes have pleaded guilty.Then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and several other executives were fired.
— Clark died by suicide in March of 2021.
— FirstEnergy agreed to pay a $230 million fine In July 2021 and to cooperate with investigators. It also admitted it bribed Householder and former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio chairman Sam Randazzo, who has not been charged and says he did nothing wrong.
Householder and Borges vehemently deny they did anything wrong. A jury will decide their fate with a verdict that may yet be weeks away.
The verdict is up to the jury, but we all should be paying attention to the case.
It speaks to how we expect our elected officials to behave and the representation we deserve.
Corruption is not an Ohio value.
If it occurred, those responsible should be held accountable and the course should be corrected.
The state’s integrity is at stake.
Youngstown Vindicator. February 5, 2023.
Editorial: Repeal law that revictimizes those already suffering
More work still remains in undoing the damage inflicted on victims of juvenile crime by the 2021 enactment of a juvenile parole bill. The legislation banned juvenile offenders — no matter how brutal or heinous their crimes — from ever being sentenced to life without parole and also made them eligible for a parole hearing every five years. The only exception was if a juvenile killed three or more people.
It was a ridiculous decision by our legislators and Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed the bill, that left victims and their families devastated and appalled.
Our region has had many, many juvenile offenders convicted of horrible crimes, but perhaps the two poster children in demonstrating why this bill was bad legislation are Jacob LaRosa and Timothy Combs.
At age 15, LaRosa brutally bludgeoned to death his elderly neighbor Marie Belcastro in her Niles home. He was sentenced to life without parole, the harshest sentence available in 2018.
Timothy Combs, then 17, was the juvenile co-defendant of infamous convicted killer Danny Lee Hill, involved in the brutal 1985 beating death of 12-year-old Raymond Fife in Warren. Combs died in 2018 at age 50 in prison. Hill, of course, remains in prison, repeatedly appealing a death sentence imposed 35 years ago.
LaRosa remains imprisoned, but under the new law would not have been eligible for a life sentence and also would have been eligible for parole every five years.
Now, we are relieved to see progress in rolling back the law under an omnibus criminal justice bill, Senate Bill 288, that included a “Victims Matter Amendment.” DeWine signed that new bill into law last month.
Victims and their families have said SB 256 revictimizes them, forcing them to endure painful and traumatic unnecessary parole hearings.
Brian Kirk, the grandson of 94-year-old Belcastro, has been traveling around Ohio the last few years raising meaningful awareness of the law’s effects and calling for its repeal.
“Knowing that LaRosa could never harm another innocent person gave my grandmother’s death meaning. SB 256 took that peace away,” Kirk said after the law’s 2021 passage. “Knowing we’d have to defend our safety every five years at parole hearings was a huge betrayal.”
We applaud Kirk’s efforts and the aggressive but reasonable method he is using to communicate his message.
His work is not done, though.
One egregious part of SB 256 that remains law states that teen offenders may not be sentenced to life without parole sentences unless they killed three or more people.
One frustrated local assistant prosecutor described that part of the law this way: “The fallacy of Senate Bill 256 is that politicians have now given murderers under the age of 18 two free murders before facing life without parole.”
We agree. What were our legislators thinking?
While we understand kids make mistakes and, generally speaking, people often deserve a second chance. But cases that involve things like brutal deaths of Marie Belcastro and Raymond Fife leave no question that these offenders should remain locked up with no opportunity to ever step foot outside prison and run the risk of again committing such carnage.
Sadly, not everyone can be rehabilitated. And frankly, juveniles convicted of such heinous crimes already have been given a second chance, because, in Ohio, they do not face the death penalty.
Further, the process of converting a juvenile case to adult court is arduous, with many hoops created for the very reason of protecting juveniles like this.
But once they’ve cleared all the hurdles, it’s because it’s been proven that the defendant deserves to be tried in adult court.
Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker has said SB 288 is a step in the right direction, but it falls short. He especially takes exception with the fact that a juvenile in Ohio can be given life without parole only if that juvenile kills three or more people.
“This is not based upon any rational reason or empirical data but was rather a fiction created by certain politicians who didn’t want to face backlash in their own communities, such as Chardon, where school shooter T.J. Lane killed three people,” said Becker in calling out two legislators from the eastern Cleveland suburbs.
“Those politicians knew they could never explain to their electorate why they were eliminating life without parole for their own local murderer.”
We applaud Kirk, and urge him and others to continue their lobby efforts on behalf of crime victims in Ohio.
And we urge our lawmakers in Columbus to realize the damage this legislation has caused victims and to repeal the remaining parts of SB 256 swiftly.
Elyria Chronicle. February 2, 2023.
Editorial: Vance backs Trump early
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance and his predecessor, Rob Portman, have more in common than their political party.
Both were among the first sitting senators to endorse returning Donald Trump to the White House, albeit in different years under different circumstances.
Portman did so in January 2019 as Trump was seeking reelection, while Vance did so a few days ago as Trump tries to stage a political comeback.
Although Portman rescinded his 2016 endorsement of Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about groping women, two years later things had changed.
Portman endorsed Trump’s reelection, citing incumbency and their working relationship.
Vance, who, like Portman, is a Cincinnati Republican, came out strong for Trump in a column published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal. He gushed about Trump’s foreign policy chops, including for brokering a deal normalizing relations between Israel and United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
That agreement was indeed a positive development, but it was an outlier.
For example, Vance praised Trump for diplomatic talks with North Korea, but neglected to mention Trump’s callous handling of the death of Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier was an Ohio college student who was charged with stealing a propaganda poster while visiting North Korea in 2016. He was forced to confess, given a sham trial and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was held for 17 months before finally being returned to the United States. He was comatose when he arrived home and died less than a week later.
Trump absolved North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, of any responsibility.
“I really believe something horrible happened to him, and I really don’t think the top leadership knew about it,” Trump said. “I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
Why did Trump say that? Well, Kim denied involvement and Trump said, “I will take him at his word.”
Likewise, Trump took Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word that Russia hadn’t meddled in the 2016 presidential election even though that was the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Trump also cut the deal with the Taliban that led to the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan during President Joe Biden’s first year in office. Trump coarsened relationships with U.S. allies and imposed ill-conceived trade tariffs.
Then there was his attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government into launching politically motivated investigations of Biden’s family. Trump was rightly impeached for that conduct, although most Republicans, including Portman, voted to acquit him. (Vance has been highly critical of sending U.S. aid to Ukraine as it fights off an unjustified invasion by Russia.)
Nor did Vance’s column mention Trump’s second impeachment — also justified — over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by some of his supporters who believed his lies about the 2020 election being stolen. Again, Portman voted to acquit Trump.
During last year’s campaign, Vance echoed Trump’s debunked election-fraud claims. He wasn’t the only Republican who did so while vying for Trump’s endorsement during the bitter Republican primary to replace Portman. Only state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, had the integrity to reject election denialism. (Dolan has announced he’s running for U.S. Senate again next year.)
Which brings us to why Vance was so quick to endorse Trump: He owes the former president.
Trump endorsed Vance late in the primary. It was enough to push Vance over the finish line first, even though Trump mangled his name, calling him J.D. Mandel, and said Vance was “kissing my ass he wants my support so bad.”
He went on to defeat then-U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, in the general election. Vance’s win was a rare bright spot last year for Trump, who saw many of his election-denying endorsees fail to win.
There’s another key difference between Portman’s endorsement in 2019 and Vance’s endorsement Tuesday.
When Portman backed Trump, it was by then fairly obvious he was going to be the Republican nominee in 2020. Most other Republicans fell in line behind Trump as well.
Trump won’t have such an easy time this time around. Several other Republicans are considering running, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as the greatest threat to Trump winning the 2024 nomination.
Portman said last month that he didn’t believe Trump would be the nominee next year.
In the meantime, Vance would do well to follow in Portman’s footsteps in a different way. He should work to find common ground with Senate Democrats to address the complex issues facing the nation.