[E]ven under these non-traditional facts and circumstances, we find the State presented sufficient evidence establishing the family-or-household- member element of the domestic violence charge.
State v. Sturgell
2021 – Ohio – 2432
Second District Appellate Court
Montgomery County, Ohio
July 16, 2021
On Saturday May 30, 2020, Mr. Joseph Sturgell severely beat his girlfriend under the Washington Street Bridge in Dayton, Ohio, while they were arguing about Mr. Sturgell’s drug use.
Mr. Sturgell repeatedly beat his girlfriend under this bridge. The couple did not have a traditional residence which is the central legal issue in this case.
The Washington Street Bridge is located in downtown Dayton, Ohio adjacent to the Great Miami River.
Mr. Sturgell’s girlfriend, the victim, was the only witness who testified at trial. The victim testified that at the time of the incident in question, she and Mr. Sturgell had been in a romantic relationship for one and a half years. Although the victim and Mr. Sturgell were homeless, the victim testified that she and Mr. Sturgell “lived together every place that [they’ve] been.” The victim also testified that she and Mr. Sturgell had lived in a lot of different places together, including “Gordon, Ohio and then Indiana, and then here in Dayton.” The victim further testified that she and Mr. Sturgell helped take care of each other, provided for each other, and had a sexual relationship. Continuing, the victim testified that while living in Dayton, she had been residing in a homeless shelter whereas Mr. Sturgell had been residing under the Washington Street Bridge (“the bridge”). Even though she was at the homeless shelter, the victim testified that she spent every day with Mr. Sturgell at the bridge where she and Mr. Sturgell continued their domestic relationship.
The victim testified that on May 30, 2020, she went to the bridge and spoke with Mr. Sturgell about him coming to live with her at the shelter. Mr. Sturgell, however, told the victim that “he was not going to come back in the shelters.” Evidently the homeless shelters discouraged narcotic consumption which was in directly conflict with Mr. Sturgell’s ethos. The victim testified that Mr. Sturgell “was choosing other things” such as “drugs and things like that” over living in the shelter.
As the victim and Mr. Sturgell were discussing this matter, the victim testified that she sprayed her perfume, which “just set [Sturgell] off.” The victim testified that in response to her spraying her perfume, Mr. Sturgell punched her on the left side of her head causing her to “hit the concrete, underneath.” The victim testified that Mr. Sturgell then continued to punch her in the face so hard that “he ripped [her] skin away from [her] dentures on the bottom” causing her to “[bleed] everywhere.” The victim also testified that she and Mr. Sturgell argued with each other for the next three hours while Mr. Sturgell continued to punch her, as well as kick and smack her.
The victim testified that she eventually got away from Mr. Sturgell and went back to the homeless shelter. When the victim arrived at the shelter, the shelter called for medical assistance and contacted the police. The responding police officer took multiple photographs of the victim’s injuries while the victim was being treated at the hospital. The photographs were identified by the victim at trial and admitted into evidence. The photographs depict scratches, bruising, and swelling on the victim’s head, face, arms, and hands. The victim testified that she suffered traumatic brain injury and nerve damage as a result of Mr. Sturgell’s beating her. The victim also testified that she was still in pain at the time of trial.
The case went to trial, Mr. Sturgell was convicted of Domestic Violence and sentenced to 180 days in jail with 10 days suspended and 30 days of credit for time served. For the remaining 140 days, the trial court ordered Mr. Sturgell to serve 90 days in jail and 50 days on house arrest via the electronic home detention program. How the homeless Mr. Sturgell is to serve ANY time on ‘electronic home detention’ is legal fiction. The trial court also ordered Mr. Sturgell to serve one year of basic, supervised probation, as well as to undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation, to complete the Stop the Violence program, and to have no contact with the victim.
Mr. Sturgell appealed and raised a single assignment of error, specifically challenging his conviction for domestic violence under R.C. 2919.25(A), which provides that: “No person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to a family or household member.” A “family or household member” is defined, in relevant part, as “a spouse, a person living as a spouse, or a former spouse of the offender” who “is residing or has resided with the offender.” R.C. 2919.25(F)(1)(a)(i). A “person living as a spouse” is defined as “a person who is living or has lived with the offender in a common law marital relationship, who otherwise is cohabiting with the offender, or who otherwise has cohabited with the offender within five years prior to the date of the alleged commission of the act in question.” R.C. 2919.25(F)(2).
The Second District Appellate Court upheld Mr. Sturgell’s conviction and held “Therefore, even under these non-traditional facts and circumstances, we find the State presented sufficient evidence establishing the family-or-household- member element of the domestic violence charge.”.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. Sturgell, 2021 – Ohio – 2432.
This case was issued by the Second District Appellate Court of Ohio and is binding in Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgomery Counties.
- How does law enforcement determine if a homeless couple meets the “family or household member” element of the Domestic Violence statute? To begin the word homeless and household are in conflict. The Supreme Court of Ohio provided guidance in 1997. The court in In State v. Williams, 79 Ohio St.3d 459, 683 N.E.2d 1126 (1997), held: “[T]he essential elements of “cohabitation” are (1) sharing of familial or financial responsibilities and (2) consortium. * * * Possible factors establishing shared familial or financial responsibilities might include provisions for shelter, food, clothing, utilities, and/or commingled assets. Factors that might establish consortium include mutual respect, fidelity, affection, society, cooperation, solace, comfort, aid of each other, friendship, and conjugal relations. These factors are unique to each case and how much weight, if any, to give to each of these factors must be decided on a case-by-case basis by the trier of fact.”. [emphasis added] The word shelter may be instructive for homeless couples when evaluating the household element to Domestic Violence. This word would not be in and of itself conclusive but simply one element of the evaluation. Law enforcement must evaluate the household element like most other legal doctrines – by the totality of the circumstances. Specific to Mr. Sturgell and the unnamed victim the Second District Appellate Court stated in pertinent part “The instant case is like Williams in that the victim and Mr. Sturgell did not have a traditional lifestyle due to being homeless and therefore exhibited few of the traditional indicia of married life or cohabitation. While there was no specific evidence of shared financial responsibilities, the victim nevertheless testified that during their one-and-a-half year romantic/sexual relationship, she and Mr. Sturgell took care of one another and provided for one another. The victim also testified that she and Mr. Sturgell “lived together every place that [they’ve] been,” including Gordon, Ohio; Indiana; and Dayton.” Although the victim testified that Mr. Sturgell chose to live under a bridge in Dayton while she stayed at a homeless shelter, the victim’s testimony indicated that she spent every day at the bridge with Mr. Sturgell where they continued their domestic relationship. Furthermore, the victim testified that as of May 29, 2020, Mr. Sturgell “was able to come back into the shelter to live with her,” which indicates that Mr. Sturgell had lived with the victim at the shelter at some point in time during their relationship.”
- What the Sturgell case leaves unanswered is when a homeless couple has lived together in a conjugal relationship that is consistently, inconsistent, on and off. The drifting fluidity of homeless ‘residences’ that often includes addiction, can provide enough reasonable doubt to inhibit a Domestic Violence conviction.
- The Dayton Police Officers in this case were not identified by name. However, the officers involved did outstanding work! They investigated the allegation of domestic violence substantively; wrote down statements of the victim, took photographs of the victim’s injuries and included the nomadic wanderings of a homeless couple. All of these factors directly led to Mr. Sturgell’s conviction and the defeat of his appeal. Well done!
- Law enforcement is the hardest job in America. This case is yet one more example of how challenging law enforcement can be “in the moment’ to make complex legal decisions and apply living under the Washington Street bridge as a residence for purposes of the Domestic Violence criminal charge.
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Don’t let your training fail you!
Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!