Conduct is key to determining whether criminal offenses should be merged, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that clarifies Ohio's allied offense law. The case arose in Hamilton County and involved Kenneth Ruff, who was convicted of the rapes of three women and three aggravated burglaries, among other crimes. The trial court did not merge the offenses and gave him separate convictions and sentences for each of the rape crimes and each of the burglaries. The defendant appealed to the First District Court of Appeals, claiming that the rapes and burglaries were allied offenses and that he should not have been sentenced for both. The First District agreed with Ruff, and the State appealed.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a defendant cannot be convicted for multiple offenses if they can be construed to be a single event ("allied offenses of similar import" under the statute). The Court held that "a defendant charged with multiple offenses may be convicted of all the offenses if any one of the following is true: (1) the conduct constitutes offenses of dissimilar import, (2) the conduct shows that the offenses were committed separately, or (3) the conduct shows that the offenses were committed with separate animus." Offenses have "dissimilar import" when they involve separate victims or the harm from the crimes is "separate and identifiable."

The Court held that these questions are fact-specific and require the Court to evaluate a defendant's conduct to determine if the offenses are actually dissimilar or if they should be merged into one charge. The State argued that rape and aggravated burglary always have dissimilar import, because one is a crime against a person and the other is a crime against property. Ruff asserted that the crimes are always similar, because the rape is the "aggravating" part of aggravated burglary. The Court did not agree with either of these arguments and found that the issue must be decided based on the facts of each case to determine whether there is "separate and identifiable harm" involved.  Because the court of appeals had not considered this, the Court remanded for the First District to evaluate whether the offenses had similar import in light of Ruff's conduct.

Justice Lanzinger penned the opinion for the Court. She was joined by Justices O'Connor, O'Donnell, Kennedy and O'Neill. Justice French concurred and Justice Pfeifer dissented. For more information about this case, see this article from Court News Ohio, and the online docket, here.