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Aggravated Vehicular Homicide in Ohio

In Ohio, safety on the road has been a growing concern for years. The state legislature has sought to deter unsafe driving by increasing the penalties for traffic crimes. In fact, in 2004, Ohio passed a law that stepped up sentences for particular dangerous behaviors on the road, including certain types of aggravated vehicular homicide. Yet, for some, especially those whose lives have been impacted by vehicular manslaughter, they want even stronger penalties for an even wider range of behaviors.

The Current Vehicular Homicide Law

In Ohio, vehicular homicide includes causing the death of another or the unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy while operating a motor vehicle. The most serious offense under this section is aggravated vehicular homicide, followed by vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter.

So what is the difference between Ohio’s three levels of vehicular homicide? The primary difference between these offense levels is the presence of certain elements.

Vehicular Homicide

An individual faces a vehicular homicide charge if he or she caused a death on the road as a result of a failure to use reasonable care while driving, or abide by speeding limits in a construction zone.

Vehicular Manslaughter

A driver may be charged with vehicular manslaughter, the least serious of Ohio’s three vehicular homicide offenses, if he or she caused a death on the road as the result of violating a misdemeanor traffic citation, or by violating any equivalent municipal ordinance.

Aggravated Vehicular Homicide

Certain elements, often referred to as aggravating factors, can enhance what would otherwise be a standard vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter into an aggravated vehicular homicide.

The most common aggravating factor is alcohol impairment. Any driver caught violating Ohio’s laws against driving while intoxicated and causes the death of another person, is potentially criminally liable for aggravated vehicular homicide. Notably, Ohio’s impaired driving laws also encompass driving while under the influence of illegal drugs or other controlled substances.

Another potential aggravating factor is relatively new to Ohio law. A driver who causes the death of another as a result of committing a reckless operation offense in a construction zone may be liable for aggravated vehicular homicide. The addition of this aggravating factor came in 2004 as a measure by the Ohio legislature to combat hazardous driving in construction zones.

Reckless operation can refer to a wide variety of driving, but the key element is willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property. Weaving in and out of traffic, excessive speeding (usually 25mph or more over the speed limit), and other unsafe driving can be considered reckless operation.

The 2004 law also increased sentences for aggravated vehicular homicide if the victim was a law enforcement officer or if the driver had three or more previous drunk driving convictions.

Impaired operation is not only an aggravating factor for offenses committed on the road; it also applies to the operation of an airplane or a boat. A person who kills another while in violation of Ohio’s wide spectrum of impairment laws can be charged with aggravated vehicular homicide.

For all three levels (aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide, and vehicular manslaughter), an offender’s previous convictions for related crimes as well as committing the offense while driving without a valid license can be taken into account in enhancing a sentence.

High Enough Penalties?

The penalties for aggravated vehicular homicide in Ohio can be quite severe. Earlier this year, an Ohio man faced up to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide. However, some say, consequences for less serious offenses of vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter are not strict enough.

In August, Richard Crabtree was killed on an Ohio road when Steven Tirpak ran a red light and broadsided Crabtree’s vehicle. Tirpak had a valid driver’s license, and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He was charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter. After pleading no contest to vehicular homicide, he received 180 days in jail (later reduced to 90 days), five years probation, a fine of $1,000, a term of community service, and the loss of his driver’s license for five years.

While this is considered a stiff sentence under current law, Jenny Crabtree, the wife of the victim, says justice was not served for her, her husband, and their three children. Like Jenny Crabtree, many victims’ advocates envision higher penalties for vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter, or expanding aggravated vehicular homicide convictions to other types of behavior.

It remains to be seen whether the legislature will amend the current laws to increase penalties for drivers facing vehicular homicide or manslaughter in Ohio.