According to the Ohio Supreme Court, Yes. In State v. O’Malley, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3207, the Court recently held that the forfeiture of one’s vehicle following multiple OVI convictions did not violate the Equal Protection Clause and was not an excessive fine or penalty.
Background and Facts
Under Ohio law, if you are convicted of three or more OVI’s in the past 10 years or six or more in the past 20 years, then you were required to forfeit your vehicle to the state if the casr you were driving at the time of the offense was registered to you.
O’Malley was convicted of his third OVI offense within 10 years and, as a result, was forced to forfeit his 2014 Silverado truck. The truck was purchased by his grandparents in 2014 and was essentially gifted to him in 2015, less $5,000 that O’Malley had put toward the original purchase of the vehicle. The trial court found the vehicle’s value to be around $31,000, which was roughly 11 times greater than the maximum fine for O’Malley’s offense.
At sentencing, he argued that this punishment violated his equal protection rights by imposing a potential vehicle forfeiture against OVI defendants who own the vehicle involved in their offense but not imposing that penalty against those who do not own the vehicle involved in their offense. He also argued that the forfeiture would be excessive under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The trial court rejected these arguments as did the Ninth District Court of Appeals.
The Ohio Supreme Court also rejected O’Malley’s arguments. Noting that the government has a legitimate interest in deterring drunk driving, the Court cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) statistic that indicating that alcohol-impaired drivers were responsible for roughly 30 percent of Ohio’s 1,153 traffic-related fatalities in 2019. As a result, it found that forfeiting a vehicle involved in an OVI offense that is registered in the repeat offender’s name is rationally related to the government’s interest in deterring drunk driving and was not a violation of his equal protection rights. Similarly, the Court found that it was not an excessive fine under the Eighth Amendment since O’Malley did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the forfeiture was grossly disproportional to the gravity of his offense.
Of note, though, was the dissenting opinion in this decision which found that such a forfeiture was an excessive fine. Justice Donnelly noted a number of studies linking high fines/penalties with exacerbated economic inequality. “Steep penalties like this one are likely to increase recidivism. [‘]When overwhelmed by financial distress and feelings of despair, petty thefts, drug sales, robberies, and relapse to substance use may become compelling survival strategies.[’]
If you are facing the forfeiture of your vehicle or an OVI charge, our office is ready to assist.