[B]ecause the Polaris was a “utility vehicle” as defined by statute, the evidence admitted at trial was legally insufficient to support Mr. Fork’s convictions of aggravated vehicular assault.

 

State v. Fork

2024 – Ohio – 1016

Supreme Court of Ohio

March 21, 2024

 

Drinking and Driving …

On a summer’s night in 2020, Mr. Joshua Fork attended a party in Burgoon, Ohio. Among the many others in attendance were sisters Leah and Sarah Doering and Leah’s boyfriend, Mr. Travis Perkins. As the night progressed, Mr. Fork had a couple of beers, and a little before 1:00 a.m., Mr. Fork took the Doering sisters and Mr. Parker for a ride in the Polaris. The Polaris is pictured below:

Drinking and Driving … and Crashing

With Mr. Fork driving, they sped off down the road. During the ride, Mr. Fork veered off the road and onto a dirt trail surrounded by trees and corn. Upon a fast approach into a sudden curve, the Polaris flipped and crashed. Mr. Parker was ejected from the vehicle and sustained face, head, and arm injuries, including a fractured forearm. Leah broke her wrist and two front teeth, cracked her jaw, and suffered bruising on multiple areas of her body. The police later administered a breathalyzer test on Mr. Fork, and Mr. Fork’s blood alcohol content was 0.178 g/210L, or more plainly, 0.178.

Aggravated Vehicular Assault

As a result of the crash, the state charged Mr. Fork with multiple counts, including two counts of aggravated vehicular assault, a third-degree felony, in violation of O.R.C. §2903.08(A)(1)(a), and two counts of operating a vehicle under the influence (“OVI”), a first-degree misdemeanor, in violation of §4511.19(A)(1)(a) and §4511.19(A)(1)(h).

When Mr. Fork Isn’t Drinking, Driving and Crashing with the Polaris He Farms with It

At trial, Mr. Fork testified that he bought the Polaris for “farm work” and “farm use.” When asked what he used it for, Mr. Fork responded, “Farm work, hauling rocks, hauling bags of seed to the planter, removing limbs and such from the farm.” When asked specifically what he used the Polaris for on the farm, Mr. Fork testified, “We use it for – we pull a sprayer with it; like I said, we pick up rocks, trim trees, haul bags of seed, just about anything you can do on the farm with it.” Mr. Fork submitted five pictures of the Polaris into evidence, including the one pictured above. 

A Self-Propelled Vehicle … with an Engine … and … a Farm Placard

Mr. Parker gave additional insight into the Polaris. When asked if it was a “self-propelled vehicle,” Mr. Parker testified that “[I]t had an engine.” Mr. Parker also testified that the Polaris had a bed on it as well as a “farm placard,” i.e., a bright orange triangle, on the back.

Trial Court – A Polaris is a ‘Motor Vehicle’ – Guilty Verdict

A dispute arose between the state and Mr. Fork regarding the applicable definition of “motor vehicle” to use in the jury instructions on the charges of aggravated vehicular assault. The state asserted that O.R.C. §4511.01(B)’s definition of “motor vehicle” was the correct definition to apply. Mr. Fork disagreed, asserting that O.R.C. §4511.01(B)’s definition of “motor vehicle,” the definition which applies to penal laws, was the correct definition to be used here. The trial court agreed with the state; the final jury instructions included the definition of “motor vehicle” under O.R.C. §4511.01(B)’s. Mr. Fork objected to the court’s decision for the record. The jury found Mr. Fork guilty on all counts.

Mr. Fork Appeal was Successful

A Polaris IS a Utility Vehicle

Mr. Fork appealed to the Sixth District. After looking to the prefatory language of both O.R.C. §4501.01 and §4511.01, the Sixth District held that the correct definition of “motor vehicle” as used in the aggravated-vehicular-assault statute is found in O.R.C. §4511.01(B). Further, the Sixth District determined that based on the definition of “utility vehicle” in O.R.C. §4501.01(VV), it was inappropriate to classify Mr. Fork’s Polaris based on how it was being used at the time of the accident, therefore rejecting the “use standard” set forth by this court in Muenchenbach v. Preble County, 2001 – Ohio – 244.  As a result, the Sixth District held that a vehicle is classified as a utility vehicle based on its principal purpose.  Finally, the Sixth District determined that Mr. Fork’s Polaris was a utility vehicle as defined in O.R.C. §4501.01(VV). As a utility vehicle, the Polaris was excepted from the definition of “motor vehicle,” and the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment and vacated Mr. Fork’s convictions for aggravated vehicular assault.

The state appealed, and we accepted jurisdiction, to consider the following three propositions of law:

[1] The definition of a “motor vehicle” as it applies to O.R.C. §2903.08(A)(1)(a) is the definition found in §4511.01 and not the definition found in §4511.01 as determined by the 6th District Court of Appeals.

[2] The 6th District Court of Appeals’ Application of State v. Eikleberry, 2009 – Ohio – 3648 to Mr. Fork is contrary to the Ohio Supreme Court’s precedent defined by Muenchenbach.

[3] A “Use Standard” must be applied in this matter as the “Polaris” was not used for its principal purpose or any other legal purpose.

4511.01(B) Definition of “Motor Vehicle” Applies

In its first proposition of law, the state asks us to determine which definition of “motor vehicle” applies in this case. The plain language of the relevant statutes guides our decision here. A person commits aggravated vehicular assault when that person, “while operating … a motor vehicle … cause[s] serious physical harm to another person … as the proximate result of committing a violation of division (A) of O.R.C. §4511.19.” O.R.C. §2903.08(A)(1). A person violates O.R.C. §4511.19 if that person “operate[s] any vehicle” while “under the influence of alcohol.” O.R.C. §4511(A)(1)(a). Therefore, to convict Mr. Fork of aggravated vehicular assault, the state must prove that Mr. Fork was operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and, in doing so, caused serious physical harm to another.

Undisputed

The parties do not dispute that Mr. Fork was operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and that in doing so, he caused others serious physical harm. The issue is whether the vehicle Mr. Fork was operating was a motor vehicle for purposes of §2903.08(A)(1).

Two Applicable Definitions

We consider two potentially applicable definitions of “motor vehicle.” O.R.C. §4501.01(B) defines “motor vehicle” as “any vehicle … that is propelled … by power other than muscular power or power collected from overhead electric trolley wires.” Utility vehicles, as defined under O.R.C. §4501.01(VV), are excepted from this definition. §4501.01(B). Meanwhile, §4501.01(B) defines “motor vehicle” as “every vehicle propelled … by power other than muscular power or power collected from overhead electric trolley wires” and that statutory division also provides exceptions to that definition. The material difference is that O.R.C. §4511.01(B) does not except utility vehicles from its definition of “motor vehicle.” We begin and end our analysis with the plain language of these statutes.

Plain Language

The plain language of §4501.01 and §4511.01 steers our analysis. Take §4501.01   for instance. It directs and explains that the definitions in that section are to be used for certain enumerated chapters in Title 45 of the Revised Code and for “the penal laws, except as otherwise provided.” §4501.01. A “penal law” is “a law imposing a penalty (as of fine, imprisonment, loss of civil rights) on persons who do or forbear a certain act or acts.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1668 (1993). A person who commits aggravated vehicular assault in violation of §2903.08(A)(1)(a) is guilty of a third-degree felony, §2903.08(B)(1), which imposes a driver’s-license suspension, §2903.08(B), and a penalty of at least 12 months in prison, O.R.C. §2929.14(A)(3)(a)  and §2903.08(D)(1). Therefore, §2903.08(A)(1)(a) is a penal law, and §4501.01(B) provides the appropriate definition of “motor vehicle” to be used here.

Motor Vehicle Should Not be Applicable Outside of the Traffic Code

4501.01 states that the definitions in §4501.01 apply to §4511.01 and §4513 “except as otherwise provided.”§4501.01. O.R.C. §4511.01, the General Assembly “otherwise provided” by directing and explaining that its definitions are to be “used in [Chapters §4511 and §4513]  of the Revised Code” and by making no mention of any other applicable sections. O.R.C. §4511 and §4513 contain many of Ohio’s traffic laws. See Mendenhall v. Akron, 2008 – Ohio – 270 (“regulates traffic laws and the operation of motor vehicles in the state of Ohio.”). By stating that the definitions in O.R.C. §4511.01 are confined to O.R.C. §4511 and O.R.C. §4513, the General Assembly made an express directive that any definition in O.R.C. §4511.01—such as §4501.01(B)’s definition of “motor vehicle” – should not be used outside of those chapters.

How to Apply an Absurdity

The state resists these conclusions. It argues that it would be absurd to require two separate definitions of “motor vehicle”—one for an OVI violation and one for an aggravated-vehicular-assault offense. But the state misreads these statutes. An OVI violation occurs when a person, while under the influence of alcohol, a drug of abuse, or a combination of those things, operates a “vehicle.” §4511.19(A)(1). A “vehicle” is a distinct and more broadly defined term than “motor vehicle.” Compare O.R.C. §4511.01(A) with §4501.01(B). Nevertheless, even if an OVI violation required a different definition of “motor vehicle,” we do not find the General Assembly’s decision to use two separate definitions – one for penal laws and another for traffic laws —absurd. See Scalia & Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 237-238 (2012) (“The absurdity must consist of a disposition that no reasonable person could intend, … obviously a technical or ministerial error.”).

Ohio Jury Instructions Are Wrong

Additionally, the Ohio Jury Instructions do not control our analysis. The Ohio Jury Instructions cite O.R.C. §4511.01(B) as the definition of “motor vehicle” that applies to charges for aggravated vehicular assault. But as explained above, such application would be contrary to the plain language of the relevant statutes. Further, the Ohio Jury Instructions “is a collection of non-binding model instructions.” (Emphasis added.) Ohio Jury Instructions, Ohio Jury Instructions Guide (Rev. Nov. 2023). 

Holding

Therefore, we hold that §4501.01(B) —the statutory division that defines “motor vehicle” for penal laws—contains the appropriate definition of “motor vehicle” to apply to the offense of aggravated vehicular assault in §2903.08.

A “Utility Vehicle” Is Defined by the Vehicle’s Principal Purpose

In the state’s second and third propositions of law, it argues that we should determine whether the Polaris is a “utility vehicle,” as defined in §4501.01 (VV), based on the “use standard” we applied in Muenchenbach.  We disagree.

Principal Purpose of a Polaris

4501.01 (VV) defines “utility vehicle” as “a self-propelled vehicle designed with a bed, principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities.” The plain language of this definition does not contain a “use standard” but, rather, focuses on the principal purpose of the vehicle. Muenchenbachand its “use standard” is therefore inapplicable to this case.

Use of the Vehicle at the Time of the Accident

In Muenchenbach, we determined whether, for purposes of establishing immunity for public-entity defendants under O.R.C. 2744.02(B), a tractor was excepted from the definition of “motor vehicle” under O.R.C. §4511.01(B) for being “other equipment used in construction work and not designed for or employed in general highway transportation.” see §4501.01(B) and §4511.01(B). We held that for that exception to apply, the statute required us to look to the vehicle’s use at the time of the accident.  

Construction Equipment is Different than Utility Vehicle

4501.01(VV)’s definition of “utility vehicle” requires no such inquiry. That statute’s language differs markedly from the construction-equipment exception that applied in Muenchenbach. As an initial matter, in Muenchenbach, we examined language from §4511.01(B) and §4501.01(B), which are entirely different provisions from §4501.01(VV) . But most notably, the construction-equipment exception requires a determination whether the vehicle is “used in” construction and “employed in general highway transportation.” §4511.01(B). For utility vehicles under §4501.01(VV, no such requirement is listed. Rather, §4501.01(VV) includes qualifying language that the vehicle must be “principally for the purpose of” one of the activities listed in the statutory division. Because the plain language of the relevant statutes controls, the “use standard” we applied in Muenchenbachdoes not apply here. And because Muenchenbach does not apply, the state’s claim that the Sixth District’s application of State v. Eikleberry, 2009 – Ohio – 3648, was contrary to Muenchenbach, is not relevant to our discussion.

Look to the Principal Purpose of the Vehicle NOT How the Vehicle was Used at the Time of the Accident

Therefore, we hold that because §4501.01(VV)’s qualifying language looks to the principal purpose of a vehicle and not to how the vehicle was used at the time of the charged conduct, the focus of the inquiry is on the vehicle’s principal purpose.

The Polaris Is a “Utility Vehicle”

Our final determination is whether the Polaris is a “utility vehicle” as defined in §4501.01(VV). Because we conclude that applying a “use standard” is inappropriate here, we must look to the vehicle’s principal purpose to determine whether the Polaris meets the statutory definition of “utility vehicle.” For the reasons discussed below, we find that the Polaris meets the definition of “utility vehicle” under §4501.01(VV).  Therefore, the record is insufficient to support Mr. Fork’s convictions for aggravated vehicular assault.

The Polaris Is Self-Propelled and Designed with a Bed

It is apparent from the record that the Polaris is both “self-propelled” and “designed with a bed,” §4501.01(VV). When asked if the Polaris was self-propelled, Mr. Parker testified that it had an engine, and ample testimony from various witnesses regarding the Polaris’s mobility leads us to the simple conclusion that it is self-propelled. Additionally, Mr. Parker testified that the Polaris had a bed, and Mr. Fork’s pictures of the Polaris that were admitted into evidence support that testimony. Therefore, the Polaris meets the definition’s functional requirement of being self-propelled and its design requirement of having a bed.

The Polaris’s Principal Purpose is “construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities” … Not Drinking, Driving and Crashing

The Polaris also meets the definition’s qualifying requirement of being designed “principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities,” §4501.01(VV).

Did ‘Anything you can do on the farm” … Include Drinking, Driving and Crashing?

The pictures admitted into evidence demonstrate that the Polaris was designed for the principal purpose of transporting materials and cargo, and Mr. Fork’s testimony adds further support. Mr. Fork testified repeatedly that the purpose of the Polaris was for “farm” related activities, such as “hauling rocks, hauling bags of seed to the planter, removing limbs and such from the farm,” “pull[ing] a sprayer,” “trim[ming] trees,” and “just about anything you can do on the farm.” In addition, both Mr. Parker’s testimony and Mr. Fork’s pictures at trial show that the Polaris had a “farm placard” on the back, further indicating that its principal purpose was for farm-related activities. 

The Ancillary Purpose of Drinking, Driving, Crashing Does Not Affect the Polaris’ ‘Principal Purpose’

The state attempts to refute this, arguing that Mr. Fork’s testimony that he used the Polaris outside of its principal purpose, such as driving to and from the party, matters in this case. But the Polaris’s ancillary use for recreation does not affect the Polaris’s principal purpose. Indeed, the state could have attempted to extract testimony about the Polaris’s principal purpose, or it could have introduced evidence showing that the Polaris’s principal purpose did not fit the qualifying language of §4501.01(VV). But the record is devoid of such evidence. Therefore, even when “viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution,” no “rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of [aggravated vehicular assault] proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” State v. Smith, 80 Ohio St.3d 89 (1997), because based on the evidence, the Polaris fits the definition of “utility vehicle” under §4501.01(VV).

Mr. Fork is Not Criminally Liable for His Actions Based on a Statutory Interpretation

There is no doubt that Mr. Fork’s actions on that fateful summer night in 2020 left a lasting effect not only on him but on those involved. The state, in exercising its prosecutorial power, sought to hold Mr. Fork criminally liable based on the law that the General Assembly has provided. But as we have explained, the state misinterpreted the law. Statutory interpretation requires us to look at the plain language of the relevant statutes and no further.

Explicit Language

When performing statutory interpretation, it is important to apply the law as written. When the General Assembly begins a statute with a statement that directs the objects of such statute or explains it, courts and litigants must follow those directions and explanations. And when the General Assembly provides explicit qualifying language in a statutory definition, courts and litigants must take note of that particular language to discern the definition’s meaning.

Legally Insufficient

In sum, we hold that when a statute defines “motor vehicle” for penal laws, that definition applies to the crime of aggravated vehicular assault found in §2903.08. We further hold that a statute’s qualifying language regarding the principal purpose of a vehicle does not look to how the vehicle was used at the time of the charged conduct but instead focuses on the vehicle’s principal purpose. Finally, because the Polaris was a “utility vehicle” as defined by statute, the evidence admitted at trial was legally insufficient to support Mr. Fork’s convictions of aggravated vehicular assault.

Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the Sixth District Court of Appeals.

Judgment affirmed.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Fork, 2024 – Ohio – 1016.

State v. Fork, 2024 – Ohio – 1016 was issued by the Supreme Court of Ohio and is binding throughout the State of Ohio.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Principle Purpose of a Polaris – The Ohio Legislature established two vehicle definitions; one for penal laws and another for traffic laws. 4501.01(B) defines “motor vehicle” as “any vehicle … that is propelled … by power other than muscular power or power collected from overhead electric trolley wires.”. Utility vehicles, as defined under O.R.C. §4501.01(VV), are excepted from this definition … “principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities,” .  While, O.R.C. §4511.01(B) is defined as “other equipment used in construction work and not designed for or employed in general highway transportation.”  The latter definition applies to the Polaris Utility vehicle and thus is inapplicable to §2903.08(A)(1) Aggravated Vehicular Assault.
  2. O.R.C. §4511.19 – Consequently, a person violates O.R.C. §4511.19 if that person “operate[s] any vehicle” while “under the influence of alcohol.”, that includes the Polaris Utility vehicle. However, the person cannot be successfully prosecuted for penal laws due the exception identified in Lessons Learned #1.
  3. Hardest Job in America – This case is exceptionally challenging because of the difficulty of the statutory construction of these closely related statutes. Both the Sixth District Appellate Court and the Supreme Court of Ohio held that a person operating a Utility Vehicle as defined by §4501.01(VV) cannot be charged under the penal code but can be charged for OVI under §4511.19.  This is yet one more example as to why law enforcement is THE hardest job in America.

Does your agency train on the doctrine of Laws of Arrest?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.