During my career as a criminal defense attorney, I have represented hundreds of people who have been charged with serious offenses. From time to time either the nature of a particular case and/or its outcome will attract the attention of MahoningMatters and other media outlets. I know this will come as a shock, but I […]
On August 10, 1978, three teenage girls, sisters Lyn and Judy Ulrich and their cousin Donna traveling to volley practice on Route 33 in Goshen, Indiana were incinerated when the gas tank in their 1973 Ford Pinto exploded after the vehicle was rear-ended by a van. Technically speaking, they were killed in an auto accident. In reality, however, they were murdered by corporate greed.
That is because Ford executives, including President Lee Iacocca, knew the Pinto was a four-wheeled death trap. Rushed into production in 1970 after only two years of development and testing, the Pinto was Ford’s response to the influx of foreign-made subcompact cars into the American market that began in the late ‘60s. During the design process company engineers sounded alarms about the gas tank which was, for a number of reasons, vulnerable to rupture in low-speed rear-end collisions. They were also concerned because a large empty space behind the backseat allowed the entire back third of the car to crumple, wedging the body and frame tightly against the car doors, making them virtually impossible to open.
Fixing the lethal combination of an exploding gas tank and jammed doors would have cost the company $15 per Pinto. Iacocca’s response: “Safety doesn’t sell.” Not surprisingly, the boss’ attitude permeated the company when attorneys representing people injured and killed in the exploding cars unearthed what became known as the “Pinto Memo.” Prepared to help Ford block new fuel system safety standards being proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the memo’s authors estimated it would cost Ford $11 per vehicle or $137 million to comply with the new regulations. They weighed that against the $50 million in litigation and settlements costs the company would incur if the cars were not made safer. Their conclusion: “…the implementation costs far outweigh the expected benefits.“
And so the company continued to manufacture and sell the deadly vehicles for more than a decade. During that time between 500 and 900 people were burned to death. The Pinto was not pulled from the market until the cost of settling lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims and the attendant negative publicity made the car unprofitable.
I was reminded of the Pinto debacle when I read a New York Times article about a series of accidents caused by Tesla’s autopilot system. The story focused on the death of 22-year-old Naibel Benavides who was killed when a Model S in autopilot mode traveling 66 MPH on a city street ran a stop sign and slammed into the parked Chevy Tahoe in which she was sitting. The car’s brakes were never applied.
While a Tesla is as different from a Pinto as the Wright Brothers’ plane is from an F-16, the cause of the crashes that killed the Ulrich’s and Ms. Benavides are the same: placing pursuit of profit ahead of people. Unlike Ford, GM, and other carmakers who use technology to restrict their systems to divided highways where there are no stop signs, traffic lights or pedestrians, Tesla allows drivers to use autopilot anywhere and everywhere. The results are predictable and tragic: the number of accidents involving Tesla’s system is skyrocketing.
And I suspect that lawsuits filed by victims are the only thing that will stop the carnage.
Every time I think of the victims we represent or read reports about companies who place no value on human life, I am reminded of why I went to law school, why I go to work every day, and why we should all fight to preserve the civil justice system that makes our world a safer place to live.
If you have viewed Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Organized Crime, Law and Order LA, Law and Order Def Comedy Jam or one of the dozen or so other iterations of the franchise, you have undoubtedly heard a cop recite the following to a suspect as they slap on the cuffs:
You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him or her present while you are being questioned.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish.
You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.
Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?
Just a hint: the answer to the last question is always “no.” I will expand on this point shortly.
After watching Lenny Briscoe “Mirandize” a couple thousand criminals, people think they understand what the warning means. Believe me, they do not because this area of the law, like most, is extremely complicated. And that explains why 90% of criminal cases are solved when people who think they know their rights tell on themselves.
For starters, according to the Supreme Court’s 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, law enforcement officers do not have to issue a Miranda warning unless they are conducting a custodial interrogation. In plain English, that means suspects do not have to be advised of their right to keep their yap shut unless and until they have been deprived of their freedom of action in a significant way.
In light of this fact, police officers often delay placing a suspect in custody and tell them they are free to go. They then begin asking questions that can lead to an arrest. For example, a police officer stops a driver who is swerving and asks, “Have you had anything to drink tonight?” More often than I care to remember, the driver, who I am almost invariably standing next to in front of a judge, will answer, “Well, I’ve had a couple of beers,” as if the officer will be satisfied by the qualifier “couple of beers” and happily send the driver on his or her way with a friendly wave.
Uhm, not so much. At that point, the officer, who was not required to issue a Miranda warning when he posed what amounts to the $10,000 dollar or so question, will ask the driver to exit the car, submit to a field sobriety test, and then a breathalyzer exam. At the end of the process, the driver will be arrested and Mirandized—which does not mean much at that point.
So, here are the takeaways from this week’s column:
First, if you are stopped by law enforcement and questioned you are under no obligation to do anything other than provide your name and ID.
Second, remember, the police will delay placing you in custody so they can use what you say to establish probable cause for arrest.
Third, your pre-arrest statements are admissible in court.
Fourth: Shut up. What you do not say cannot be used against you.
In his most recent MahoningMatters column, BKH managing partner David Betras, one of the area’s leading criminal defense attorneys, discusses prosecutorial misconduct and the threat overzealous prosecutors pose to every American’s freedom…
Prosecutors in the United States wield awesome power and have access to immense resources that dwarf what is available to criminal defendants and defense counsel. The lawyers who represent the people of the United States or the people of Ohio have near-total discretion to decide who is charged and with what—the old saying that a prosecutor can convince a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich is basically true, they are funded by taxpayer dollars, work hand-in-hand with the law enforcement officers who investigate crimes and have unlimited access to state-of-the-art forensic science.
To balance the legal playing field and protect society, the rules of criminal procedure, the law, and codes of conduct administered by the courts and bar associations have established strict guidelines and boundaries designed to prevent prosecutors from abusing their authority. Chief among them is the admonition that a prosecutor’s job is to secure justice, not convictions. This principle is embodied in Ohio’s Code of Professional Conduct which states:
“A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”
It is also included in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Criminal Justice Standards (CJS):
“The primary duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict… The prosecutor should seek to protect the innocent and convict the guilty, consider the interests of victims and witnesses, and respect the constitutional and legal rights of all persons, including suspects and defendants.”
Along with defining prosecutors’ role, the rules, laws, and Supreme Court decisions also set forth their responsibilities, which, according to the ABA’s CJS include the duty to “…make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense…”
This standard encapsulates the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v Maryland, In that case, a 7-2 majority held that “…the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment… Society wins not only when the guilty are convicted, but when criminal trials are fair.” The Court has revisited Brady numerous times over the years, including in 1985 when the justices ruled in United States v. Bagley that a prosecutor’s duty to disclose material favorable evidence exists regardless of whether the defendant makes a specific request.
Despite the guardrails that have been erected, some prosecutors misuse their power and abuse their discretion. They place more value in securing convictions than preserving justice. They commit what are known as “Brady Violations” by refusing to turn over or concealing exculpatory evidence to the defense and violate defendants’ due process rights in other disturbing ways.
This matters for two reasons. First, because when prosecutors violate the rules, innocent people go to jail for decades or are executed. Some of the wrongful conviction cases have penetrated the national consciousness: the Central Park 5, Walter McMillan, the Brown brothers, and Anthony Ray Hinton. Thousands of others, however, suffer in silence outside the spotlight, hoping that justice will be done.
Second, each case of prosecutorial misconduct, each Brady violation, each wrongful conviction weakens the criminal justice system and puts every American’s freedom at risk.
In his most recent blog post/Mahoning Matters column, BKH Managing Partner David Betras defines defamation, libel, and slander and explains why it is virtually impossible for public figures to win defamation suits and the legal shield that protects Facebook and other social media sites from being helped accountable for statements posted by users…
As I have noted in previous columns, the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution are not absolute.
For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1919 that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech under the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, this one exception has given rise to many questions and hundreds of cases regarding what type of expression is shielded by the Bill of Rights. For example, can a person in that hypothetical crowded theater stand up and accuse another of a crime or pass out a leaflet that impugns someone else’s character?
As is often — and often maddeningly — the case with issues involving the Constitution, the answer is, “It depends.”
In this instance, it depends on the laws governing defamation which is defined as a false statement presented as a fact that injures or damages a third party’s reputation. There are two types of defamation: slander, an untrue statement made orally; and libel, an untrue statement made in writing. And, since the dawn of the computer age and the internet, that includes email and social media posts.
1.) The statement was reported as fact to another person;
2.) The statement was false;
3.) The plaintiff suffered damages;
4.) The person making the statement was negligent.
Seems pretty straightforward, except we are talking about the law so nothing could be further from the truth. And speaking of the truth, it is an absolute defense to defamation because if what is said or written is true, it cannot be false, and therefore, it can be neither libelous nor slanderous no matter how much damage it may cause.
Here is another fun fact: Public figures have virtually no chance of winning defamation suits thanks to New York Times v. Sullivan, a unanimous 1964 Supreme Court ruling that established the “absent malice” standard. Under this legal principle, the target of a defamatory statement must prove the person or entity that wrote or uttered it did so with knowledge of or reckless disregard for the fact that it was untrue.
Who qualifies as a public figure? Politicians, celebrities, business, labor, and community leaders, and, well, me. This means Mahoning Matters can publish just about anything they want to about me and there is not much I can do about it.
Finally, consider this scenario: two neighbors who are not public figures have a contentious relationship. Neighbor A posts on Facebook that Neighbor B beats his wife and kids and kicks his dog. The statement is false, but people believe it and ostracize Neighbor B, he is fired from his job and suffers other torments.
Neighbor B can sue Neighbor A, but can he sue Facebook for providing a platform for the lies?
No, because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) holds that Facebook and other computer service providers are not considered publishers of content posted by users and are not responsible for it.
So while Neighbor B may be able to wring a few bucks out of Neighbor B, he will not be getting a check drawn on Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar account
Frivolous, adjective: not having any serious purpose or value.
My decades-long legal career has been filled with interesting cases, challenging litigation, and high-stakes trials. But in all my years as a member of the bar, there is one thing I have never done: file a frivolous lawsuit.
That makes me an anomaly in the eyes of the insurance industry, the American Medical Association, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who claim frivolous lawsuits filed by ambulance-chasing attorneys clog our courts, are responsible for skyrocketing insurance premiums and health care costs, force doctors to practice “defensive medicine” and generally make the world a horrible place to live.
At least that is what they say when they are pushing the passage of tort “reform” legislation that slams the courthouse door in the face of Americans seriously injured or killed because someone else was negligent or reckless.
Along with venting my resentment at having my life’s work denigrated and dismissed as frivolous, a number of things motivated me to once again note that restricting access to the civil justice system makes the world a more dangerous place for our families: The drive to enact tort reform laws is continuing unabated in state legislatures across the nation.
Iowa, Missouri, Texas and Florida, where I will soon be licensed to practice, are among the states attacking victim’s rights. Here in Ohio, an effort to reverse a Draconian cap on non-economic damages is being blocked by the special interest groups and Republicans who imposed the limit in 2004.
A new report issued by the Center for Law and Justice at New York Law School thoroughly debunks many of the myths obscuring the truth about medical malpractice in the U.S. This free-to-download, 172-page publication provides a comprehensive review of the latest statistics about litigation, cost, access to doctors, insurance and patient safety.
I found the following facts to be especially compelling:
- Experts agree that when cases are filed, they are not “frivolous.” Among the experts is Victor Schwartz, General Counsel of the American Tort Reform Association who admitted in 2011 that “It is ‘rare or unusual’ for a plaintiff lawyer to bring a frivolous malpractice suit…”
- Litigation and settlements enhance patient safety. Tort reform laws put patients at risk.
- Neither “tort reforms” nor “caps on damages” lower insurance premiums for doctors.
- Stripping away patients’ legal rights will not reduce health care costs and may actually increase them.
Finally, a case being litigated by our office underscores how serious and difficult our work is.
While I am unable to discuss the matter in detail, it involves a client who was horribly injured during a medical procedure some time ago. Since agreeing to represent the victim, we have devoted hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to trial prep and gone toe-to-toe and face-to-face with insurers, defense attorneys and health care providers determined to trivialize our client’s life-altering, lifelong injuries.
Whenever I look at the photos of this client or the hundreds of others we have represented over the years I am reminded of the fact that “frivolous” is the last word that can be used to describe what we do.
Recently one of our Facebook followers messaged us this important and interesting question:
“Can an employer ask workers if they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 and are they allowed to ‘out’ those who have and have not?”
Like most employment issues related to the pandemic, the answer to that straightforward question is complicated, multi-faceted, and evolving. But I am certainly willing to take a shot at responding.
I want to preface the discussion by reminding everyone of two critically important facts: First, employers are generally permitted to require all workers to be vaccinated. Second, workers who refuse may be disciplined and/or fired unless they are protected by a union contract, have a disability or object to getting a shot due to sincerely held religious beliefs.
Employers must offer people who fall into the latter two categories “reasonable accommodations” that will enable them to continue to work.
Now let us consider whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) permits employers to ask workers if they have been vaccinated. According to guidance issued late last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the answer is yes as long as inquiry does not elicit information about a disability that would trigger the ADA’s requirement that all inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
Tip for employers: You do not want to do that.
To avoid running afoul of the ADA, employers should do the following when requesting vaccination information:
• Design the request so it is not likely to elicit information about a disability;
• Do not ask why a worker was not vaccinated;
• Warn employees not to provide any medical information when providing proof of vaccination.
Employers also have the right to ask for any number of reasons: to verify compliance with a vaccine mandate; prove that an employee has qualified for a vaccination incentive; to determine if an employee can return to work on-site; to comply with a customer’s demands that a vendor’s workforce has been vaccinated; or to inform the public that workers at a restaurant, store or other type of business that involves interaction with patrons have received their shots.
In fact, I can envision “Guaranteed COVID-19 Free” becoming a popular advertising slogan in the months ahead.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what employers may do, it is time to address what they may not do: They cannot “out” or identify workers who have or have not been vaccinated.
While it is generally legal to ask the question, it may be considered a medical inquiry which would make each employee’s response confidential medical information protected under statutory and common law. The law also obliges employers to protect workers’ personal and health information including their vaccination status.
I urge employers to take all steps necessary to meet that obligation.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the column, COVID-19 employment law is evolving rapidly so businesses and workers should protect themselves by keeping up to date with their rights and obligations.
While the pandemic is, hopefully, coming to an end, it may take years to resolve the legal issues and lawsuits it has spawned. I will do my best to keep my readers informed.
News about the approval of COVID-19 vaccines has raised two things: hope that the pandemic will end in the not too distant future and lots of questions including the one I’ve been asked most: Can a worker be fired if their employer requires them to be vaccinated and they refuse?
The answer is, with limited exceptions, “yes.” That’s because in “will-to-work” states like Ohio employees can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Your boss doesn’t like the way you said “hello” when you walked in? You’re gone. Won’t be vaccinated? Hasta la vista baby, you’re out of there.
Professor Dorit Reiss of the University of California Hastings College of Law puts it succinctly: “Requiring a vaccine is a health and safety work rule, and employers can do that.” And they can show workers the door for failing to abide by the rule.
Some people have reacted with surprise and anger when told they can be canned for refusing to be vaccinated. “I’ll sue,” they say emphatically. “Forcing me to have that needle stuck in my arm violates my Constitutional rights!”
Well, not so much.
What most folks don’t know is that workplace vaccination requirements aren’t new and they passed Constitutional muster long ago. The health care industry provides a prime example. State and federal courts have repeatedly ruled providers can compel workers to be immunized against the flu and numerous other diseases. Don’t want to do it? That’s cool. Turn in your stethoscope, take off your lab coat, and don’t let the door hit you in the posterior on your way to a new career.
About the exceptions, I mentioned earlier. They exist, but they are incredibly difficult to secure. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who object to being immunized due to their “sincerely held” religious beliefs. Here’s a tip: personal or ethical objections like those harbored by members of the “anti-vax” movement generally won’t qualify as a religious belief.
In addition, people whose medical conditions could be worsened or impacted by the COVID-19 vaccine may use the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to force employers to make exceptions to a vaccine work rule. Here are some important points to ponder before seeking an exemption under these federal laws: the burden of proof falls squarely on the employee seeking the exemption, reasonable accommodations must not create an undue burden on employers, and in almost all instances the ADA’s “direct threat standard” trumps the reasonable accommodation rule. Oh, and you’re most likely going to need an attorney to assist in the process.
Finally, here’s the question that follows the question about vaccination requirements: If I’m fired for refusing to be immunized, will I be eligible for unemployment compensation (UC)? While the rules related to COVID-19 are unsettled, workers terminated for violating existing immunization mandates generally do not qualify for UC.
That’s another factor to consider as you decide whether or not to roll up your sleeve when the vaccine comes to a neighborhood near you.
Ohio’s Open Meetings Act enacted in 1954 and Public Records Act passed in 1963 known collectively as the state’s “Sunshine Laws,” are based on the belief that government belongs to the people. I couldn’t agree more, and, as a member of the Mahoning County Board of Elections a public body subject to those laws, I believe anyone and everyone should have access to our meetings and the documents we produce.
I’m in good company. The Founders including James Madison, one of the primary architects of our Constitution, clearly understood that public trust was critical to the survival of our democracy:
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives”
Over the 66 years since their enactment, Ohio courts have repeatedly recognized the importance of open government when asked to arbitrate Sunshine Law disputes. In 1976 Justice William B. Brown writing for a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court in Dayton Newspapers, Inc. v. Dayton set the standard for record production that has also been applied to cases involving public meetings:
“The rule in Ohio is that public records are the people’s records, and that the officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people; therefore anyone may inspect such records at any time…”
Given the Dayton Newspapers decision and the fact that both laws empower “any person” to enforce their provisions, one could assume that obtaining records or forcing public bodies to actually meet in public would be a simple, straightforward process.
One would, of course, be wrong.
That’s because we’re dealing with government and the legal system which means these critically important acts are wrapped in miles of red tape. For example, the Sunshine Law Manual published by the Attorney General’s office contains 35 pages of exemptions to the open records law that have been enacted by the General Assembly—including the one that exempts the General Assembly itself from the law. In addition, the courts and the AG’s office have issued numerous opinions that shield records and officeholders from public scrutiny. As a result, forcing government officials to operate in the open can be an arduous, time-consuming endeavor.
But it’s an endeavor that is well worth the effort. In case after case, citizens and the media have used the Sunshine Laws to expose government corruption, mismanagement, and malfeasance and to ensure that bad actors are held accountable for their misdeeds. Ohio is a better state, our democracy is stronger because a concerned resident or inquisitive reporter exercised their right to examine what our elected leaders are doing and how they are doing it.
Because we believe transparency and accountability are essential to the efficient operation of government, you can access a readable/downloadable version of the Sunshine Law Manual here: 2020-Sunshine-Manual_WEB It’s an A to Z guide that will enable “any person” in our community to utilize the Open Records and Public Meetings acts.
Take a look and then let the sunshine in…
Ohio’s state correctional facilities are COVID-19 hotspots. If you have a relative or friend incarcerated at one of these dangerous facilities Betras, Kopp & Harshman may be able to help by securing their judicial release from prison.
Call us today at 330-746-848 or 800-457-2889 to learn more!
Under Ohio law, qualifying inmates may ask their trial court judge to grant early “judicial release” from prison. The procedure is complicated and requires the preparation and filing of motions and court hearings, but it does offer a ray of hope for people trapped in the state’s COVID-19 ravaged correctional facilities.
An inmate is eligible if the following apply:
☑️He or she was sentenced in Ohio state court for Ohio state offenses.
☑️The sentence includes a “non-mandatory” prison term.
☑️The offender is not imprisoned for a felony related to and committed while he or she held public office in Ohio.
Eligible inmates may be granted judicial release according to this time-served schedule:
☑️Sentence of two years or less: eligible for immediate release.
☑️More than two years but less than five: must serve six months.
☑️Five years: must serve four years.
☑️More than five years but less than ten: must serve five years.
☑️More than ten years: the greater of half the time sentenced or five years.
Don’t delay, contact us today to learn more about the judicial release process. If your relative or friend is eligible Betras, Kopp & Harshman’s experienced criminal defense team will go to work immediately to secure their release from Ohio’s COVID-19 ravaged prisons.
Don’t delay. Contact us TODAY!
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