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Criminal Trial in Absentia Against Corporation Cannot Proceed in Municipal Court

2009-0441.  Cleveland v. Washington Mut. Bank, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-2219.
Cuyahoga App. No. 91379, 2008-Ohio-6956.  Judgment of the court of appeals affirmed, and cause remanded to the trial court.
Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, J., concurs separately.
Brown, C.J., not participating.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-2219.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(May 26, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio today ruled that a state statute, which the city of Cleveland contended permitted a criminal trial in the absence of the defendant, does not apply to criminal trials against corporations in municipal court initiated by affidavit or complaint.

After failing to make ordered repairs to properties it owned in Cleveland and failing to appear at multiple hearings, the Cleveland Municipal Court found Washington Mutual Bank guilty of building and housing code violations and imposed a fine of $100,000. A three-judge panel of the Eighth District Court of Appeals overturned the housing court’s judgment and vacated the fine against the property owner. The City of Cleveland appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case.

In an opinion authored by Justice Robert R. Cupp, the Court noted that R.C. 2941.47 only refers to a criminal case against a corporation instituted by indictment or information in common pleas courts not a misdemeanor prosecution instituted by complaint or affidavit in municipal courts.

“Because this criminal prosecution was brought by affidavit or complaint in municipal court rather than by indictment or information in common pleas court, R.C. 2941.47 does not apply,” Justice Cupp wrote.

Justice Cupp wrote that the cases cited by the city to prove its authority do not concern similar circumstances to this case. He also pointed out that the question of “whether R.C. 2941.47 provides for a trial of a corporation in absentia in proceedings other than those brought by affidavit or complaint in a municipal court” is not before the Court in this case.

The Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Justice Cupp’s opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Ann Lanzinger.

Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred separately and urged the General Assembly to study the problem of high rates of foreclosure in urban neighborhoods dominated by absentee landlords who permit properties to go into ruin and decay. “City prosecutors working in municipal and common pleas courts must have a mechanism through which they can constitutionally provide notice to landlords but proceed with trial in absentia if a landlord fails to respond to defend the claim. Legislative modification of R.C. 2941.47 to permit a municipal court to proceed in absentia is one manner in which this goal can be accomplished.”

Chief Justice Eric Brown did not participate in the Court’s deliberations or decision in the case.

Karyn J. Lynn, 216.664.4504, for City of Cleveland.

Vladimir P. Belo, 614.227.2300, for Washington Mutual Bank.

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