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A cautionary tale for gun owners and anyone who has been adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

One of the fascinating things about trying criminal cases—and one of the things that will keep me at it until I fall over at my desk—is that you never know where the law and the facts will take you. I was reminded of that reality during a just-concluded high-profile murder trial in which the provisions of Ohio’s “Constitutional Carry” firearms statute and my client’s failure to have his juvenile record sealed and expunged converged to forge the plea deal I negotiated on his behalf.

That said, this week’s column should serve as a cautionary tale for gun owners, any who has been adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent, and parents.

Chapter One: Where you can’t carry a firearm in Ohio.

While Ohio’s recently enacted Constitutional Carry law has relaxed or removed many of the statutes related to carrying a concealed weapon, including the need to apply for a permit and undergo training, it has not turned the entire state into Dodge City. There are still places the Wyatt Earps and Doc Holidays among us may not enter if they are packing. They include:  

  • Police stations, sheriff’s offices, highway patrol posts
  • Correctional institutions or other detention facilities
  • Airport terminals or airplanes
  • Courthouses
  • Universities, unless expressly permitted
  • Places of worship, unless the place of worship permits otherwise
  • School safety zones: schools, school buildings, school premises, school activities, and school buses
  • Private businesses, including bars, restaurants, and other places that serve alcohol may prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons but must post a notice of the prohibition in a conspicuous place.

That last proved problematic for my client because he did carry a concealed weapon into a bar/restaurant that expressly prohibits doing so which is a third degree felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

He shouldn’t have done that—and neither should you. Take my advice, nothing good comes of carrying a concealed weapon into a place where people are consuming alcohol—especially if one of the people is you. BKM’s rule pertaining to driving while under the influence–Don’t Do It—also applies to doing shooters and carrying a shooting iron.

Chapter Two: Carrying a weapon under disability.

And, no I’m not talking about workers’ comp or SSDI. I’m referring to the Ohio law that makes it a crime to knowingly acquire, carry, or use any firearm or dangerous weapon if you:

  • Are a fugitive from justice;
  • Are under indictment for or have been convicted of any felony offense of violence;
  • Are under indictment for or has been convicted of any felony offense involving the illegal possession, use, sale, administration, distribution, or trafficking in any drug of abuse;
  • Are drug dependent, in danger of drug dependence, or a chronic alcoholic;
  • Are under adjudication of mental incompetence, have been adjudicated as a mental defective, or have been committed to a mental institution;
  • Have been adjudicated a delinquent child for the commission of an offense that, if committed by an adult, would have been a felony offense of violence;
  • Have been adjudicated a delinquent child for the commission of an offense that, if committed by an adult, would have been a felony offense involving the illegal possession, use, sale, administration, distribution, or trafficking in any drug of abuse.

If you guessed that my client ran afoul of the juvenile adjudication thing, give yourself a gold star. Like carrying a concealed weapon into a prohibited place, possessing a firearm under disability is a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Again, take my advice, this is something you really should not do.

Chapter 3: Failing to seal and expunge juvenile records can haunt you well into adulthood

Because the state of Ohio believes juvenile offenses should not impact a person’s life until they day they die, the General Assembly created a process for sealing and expunging juvenile court records. If you or someone you know has been adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent, I implore you to take advantage of the opportunity to obtain the fresh start the state is offering.

The client in the case I’m discussing today did not, and, as I noted above, that left him open to the charge of possessing a firearm under disability. While not as serious, failure to seal and expunge a juvenile record can make it difficult to get a job, be admitted to college, or obtain a credit.

Here is a brief overview of what is a complicated process:

First, let’s define our terms.

Sealing a record means it still exists but is hidden from public view. A sealed record can still be seen in limited circumstances by the Courts, law enforcement, or the defendant.

Expunging a record means all physical and electronic versions of the record are destroyed. The record then no longer exists, and for all intents and purposes, it never existed. Once the record is expunged you can truthfully say that you do not have a juvenile record.

Before records can be expunged, they must be sealed. All offenses, except for aggravated murder, murder, and rape may be sealed and expunged.

Contrary to what many people believe, with few exceptions, juvenile records are not automatically sealed and expunged by the courts. You must apply. I am sure that most readers will not be surprised to learn that as this guide clearly shows, the process is complicated and laborious. The law does not require applicants to be represented by an attorney, but if you take a look at the publication referenced above, you may decide to contact a lawyer.

Chapter 4: Conclusions

What have we learned from the cautionary tale?  Don’t carry a firearm into someplace you shouldn’t, don’t carry a weapon under disability, and do take advantage of the law that allows you to seal and expunge your juvenile record.

The End.

Do Trump gag orders pass constitutional muster? Probably not.

“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler, American journalist

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Anyone whose job is or involves creative writing will agree with Gene Fowler. I’ve cranked out more than 200 of these columns over the years and I can tell you that staring at my computer monitor when the only thing on the screen is a blinking cursor—the days of paper and pen having disappeared long ago—is a frightening and frustrating experience.

Deciding what to write about is among the most difficult challenges I face. Some weeks my brain is devoid of possible topics, others my cranium is stuffed with so much flotsam and jetsam you’d need a Coast Guard icebreaker to cut through it. This week proved to be the latter because as I sat down and hovered my hands over the keyboard a number of my favorite subjects were bouncing around in my nugget: I decided to write about two of them: Donald Trump and the First Amendment.

Let’s jump in.

As most of you know, Donald Trump is embroiled in a dizzying array of  legal proceedings: a civil lawsuit in New York involving allegations the former president deceived banks, insurers and others by exaggerating the value of his assets, and four pending criminal trials related to charges that he engaged in a conspiracy to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, mishandled classified documents, paid hush money to coverup extramarital affairs, and violated Georgia’s anti-racketeering laws by plotting to overturn his loss in the state’s 2020 presidential contest.

All the cases are enthralling because this is the first time in history a former occupant of the Oval Office has been indicted on criminal charges, but the civil fraud and federal election interference proceeding are particularly fascinating because the judges presiding over them have issued gag orders against Mr. Trump. As my regular readers know, while I’m a huge fan of the First Amendment, I do recognize that the courts may limit free speech. For example, there is this well-known passage written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic… The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger…

Judges are permitted to issue gag orders if they believe there is a credible fear that jurors may be swayed by statements in the media or online, if people involved in the case could be threatened or harassed, or if confidential information could become public.

Judge Arthur Engoron, the New York State judge overseeing the civil lawsuit, told all participants in the case not to smear court personnel and warned that violations would trigger serious sanctions. Shortly after the trial began on October 2 Mr. Trump posted a photo of Allison Greenfield, the judge’s principal law clerk on Truth Social, his social media platform and said it was “disgraceful” that she was working in the courtroom. The judge reacted by slapping a gag order on the former president who has violated it twice and been fined a total of $15,000.

Given the fact the Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters have a proven record of attacking people who offend him, the judge’s reaction was at the very least prudent and met the standard of preventing or in the case of the former president attempting to prevent him from making public statements that could cause harm Ms. Greenfield.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan who is presiding over the election interference case imposed a partial gag order on Trump after special counsel Jack Smith and his prosecutors argued that the ex-president’s statements about the case risked prejudicing the trial. Mr. Trump has often railed against the judge, Smith and his staff, the jury pool in Washington, D.C where the case is being tried, and potential witnesses.

The order, which is now on hold pending an appeal by Mr. Tump’s attorneys, bars him and other parties in the case from making public statements about Smith, the defense counsel, members of the court or any of their staffers. They are also prohibited from targeting “any reasonably foreseeable witness or the substance of their testimony.”

Interestingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a friend of the court brief in which they argue that the order is too vague, broad, and is not sufficiently justified. In a press release ACLU executive director Anthony Romero noted that “No modern-day president did more damage to civil liberties and civil rights than President Trump. “But if we allow his free speech rights to be abridged, we know that other unpopular voices — even ones we agree with — will also be silenced.” 

In their brief the ACLU said Trump has made many “patently false” statements that have “caused great harm to countless individuals,” but he “retains a First Amendment right to speak, and the rest of us retain a right to hear what he has to say.” They also assert that any restraint on the former president’s speech must be “precisely defined and narrowly tailored,” and concluded that Judge Chutkan’s order “fails that test.”

Is the ACLU right? I tend to object to prior restraint, and while Mr. Trump has in the past made troubling statements, in my opinion he has yet to cross the line in this case. Of course, there’s still plenty of time, the trial is not scheduled to begin until March 2024.

Alford Pleas: understanding why innocent people sometimes plead guilty…

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

In the tradition of popular TV series like Ozark, Succession, Yosemite, and Breaking Bad, last week’s column was a cliffhanger. As you may remember, as I signed off I was ensconced in bucolic Findlay, Ohio busily preparing for a jury trial in Hancock County Common Pleas Court that was scheduled to begin on Monday, October 2. I had done my due diligence, readied my defense, pored over the prosecution’s exhibits, and was geared up for voir dire which is fancy way of saying selecting a jury. Just wait, there’s more legalese to come in the column.

Anyway, I was fired up, ready to go and—now for the resolution of the cliffhanger you’ve all been sitting on the edge of your seats awaiting: the verdict. Was my client found guilty or not guilty by a jury of his peers? Well, you can sit back and relax there was no courtroom drama because my client was offered accepted a plea deal before the trial began.

To be more specific, he entered an Alford Plea which permits defendants to admit to criminal charges while maintaining their innocence. A defendant who enters an Alford Plea is, in essence, acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them even if they did not commit the crime. To understand why an innocent person would agree to plead guilty, it is helpful to examine the case of Henry Alford, the man for whom the Alford Plea is named.

In 1963 Mr. Alford was indicted for first degree murder in North Carolina where the death penalty was the default sentence for the offense at the time. Alford would probably have received a life sentence had he pleaded guilty, but he maintained his innocence. He subsequently agreed to plead to second degree murder for one reason and one reason only: to avoid the gas chamber. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Alford appealed, arguing that he was forced into a guilty plea because he was afraid he would be sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court and a Federal District Court both found that Alford had entered the guilty plea voluntarily and denied his appeal. The Fourth Circuit Court disagreed and held that Alford’s plea was not voluntary because it was made under fear of the death penalty.

In a 6-3 decision handed down in 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court. Writing for the majority Justice Byron “Whizzer” White said courts may accept whatever plea a defendant chooses to enter, as long as the defendant is competently represented by counsel; the plea is intelligently chosen; and “the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt.” Faced with “grim alternatives,” the defendant’s best choice of action may be to plead guilty to the crime and the courts must accept the defendant’s choice made in his own interests.

Since then, the Alford Plea have become an important component of a criminal justice system in which more than 90% of cases are resolved with plea bargains. As I did last week, I have advised defendants to enter Alford Pleas. Why? Because although I revere the jury system, clients I knew to be innocent were convicted and received stiffer sentences than would have been imposed had they agreed to a plea deal.

Does the fact that the Hancock County case ended in a plea deal mean all the work I did to prepare for it was wasted? The answer is no. In the course of dissecting the prosecution’s case I discovered some evidence that I believed was inadmissible and should not be heard by the jury. Based on that discovery, I filed, and the judge granted what is known as a “motion in limine” which excluded the evidence in question from the case. The exclusion of that evidence significantly weakened the state’s case, substantially strengthened my bargaining position, and enabled me to secure the best possible outcome for my client.

Outcome of jury trials dependent on defense attorney’s experience, talent, skill

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

As I write this week’s column, I am busily preparing for a jury trial in Hancock County Common Pleas Court which is located in beautiful, downtown Findlay, Ohio. I’ve lost track of exactly how many jury trials I’ve participated in during my more than three decades as a practicing attorney, but I can say the outcomes have provided most of the highlights and lowlights of my career—and truth be told–I remember a lot more about my losses than my wins.

Why does the angst associated with guilty verdicts last longer than the euphoria that accompanies acquittals? Because the outcome of each trial is in many ways dependent on the defense attorney’s experience, talent, intelligence, rhetorical skill, knowledge, and yes—acting ability. We select the jury, we carefully study and prepare to nullify the evidence and undermine—if not destroy—the credibility of the witnesses presented by the prosecution, we build our defense and craft a compelling narrative that will convince the jurors that our client is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and then we write and deliver a captivating closing argument that will enthrall the jury and win the case.

What could possibly go wrong?

Obviously, lots, which is I and many of my colleagues sit straight up in bed at 3:00 AM and reexamine every facet of a case that ended in a guilty verdict. Did I miss something in jury selectin? Was I slow to respond to an unexpected piece of evidence or testimony. Did my exhibits fall flat. Did I fail to connect with jurors?  I’ll often replay every minute of a trial in my head to identify what I did right and what I could have done better.

While the process is agonizing it is also extremely valuable because practical experience is an indispensable asset to a trial lawyer. That is because although they teach basic trial tactics and the rules of civil and criminal procedure in law school, there is no substitute for preparing and trying cases on behalf of clients who place their freedom, their future, and in some instances their very lives in your hands. Take it from me, courtrooms, not classrooms, are the only places attorneys like me learn to ply our trade.

Yet, despite all the preparation and trepidation involved, I love jury trials and the jury system. And I’m not alone. Throughout history the jury system has been a foundational pillar of civilized societies. Nearly 3,000 years ago bodies known as dikastai composed of as many 1,501 citizens rendered verdicts by majority rule in cases ranging from mundane matters to those involving death, exile, and seizure of property.

The Roman Empire also featured a precursor of modern juries in which capital trials were conducted before thousands of citizens. Interestingly, high government officials and their relatives, people who had been convicted of felonies, gladiators for hire, and men younger than 30 or older than 60 were barred from jury service.  

The system continued to evolve though the centuries and began to resemble the process and configuration that exists today in the late 900s when King Etheired the Unready of England instituted the Wantage Code which required the 12 leading minor nobles in small districts to investigate crimes. These juries differed from modern ones because there were no trials—the jurors were responsible for investigating cases and rendering verdicts on their own.

Juries took a major leap forward during the Reign of King Henry II in the mid 1100s. He established both a process in which a jury of 12 free men arbitrated property disputes and formed grand juries whose members were to report any crimes they knew of to a judge who would then conduct a trial by ordeal. As you might imagine, the guilt or innocence of the defendant was determined by subjecting them to one or more painful experiences. This system was based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle on their behalf. Trial by ordeal fell out of favor when Pope Innocent III prohibited priests from participating in trials by fire and water. I can say this, if they were still around, I would have found a different occupation.

The right to trial by jury, along with the entirety of British Common Law, continued to advance and served as both one of reasons for the American Revolution and the basis for the judicial system America’s Founding Fathers enshrined in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments to our Constitution. Thomas Jefferson specifically cited King George’s decision to deprive colonists of trial by jury as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence and John Adams wrote that “…representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.  Without them we have no fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hogs.”

I am 100 percent in agreement with Adams, which explains why I believe we all have a civic duty to vote and serve as jurors—and why I refuse to help anyone skirt jury duty. Under Ohio there are very few reasons people may be exempt from service and even those who qualify must be excused by a judge. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve received a jury summons and duly reported for duty. Unfortunately, I was excused and denied the opportunity to get a very close look at the dynamic that takes place during deliberations. That is an experience I would have relished and used for the remainder of my career.

Students’ right to privacy is limited in public schools, random searches of lockers/contents permissible under the 14th Amendment…

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

To the relief of parents and the chagrin of students, summer is over and a new school year has begun. That makes this an opportune time to convene another session of Professor Dave’s Shade Tree Legal Academy. During today’s lecture I will discuss whether the law allows public school teachers and administrators to search students and their property. It’s a fascinating topic that involves the Fourth Amendment, a landmark Supreme Court decision, and state statutes.

Class is about to begin so please no gum chewing, turn off your cell phones and handheld devices, and, as usual, there will not be quiz or test on this material because Professor Dave doesn’t have time to grade them.

Let’s begin our exploration of the topic with a look at the Fourth Amendment which states in part: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” For years various state and federal courts reached various conclusions regarding the applicability of the Amendment to public schools. The issue finally was resolved in 1985 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling in New Jersey v. T. L. O.

The case revolved around TLO, a 14-year-old New Jersey high school student who was caught smoking in a school bathroom by a teacher. The teacher escorted TLO to the school office where she was questioned by assistant vice principal Theodore Choplick. During the questioning, the student denied that she had been smoking and said she “did not smoke at  all.” At that point, Mr. Choplick demanded to see her purse, opened it and found a pack of cigarettes and rolling papers. He continued to search the purse and found a small amount of marijuana and a list of students to whom she had sold pot. The police were called and TLO was eventually found to be delinquent by a juvenile court judge and placed on probation for one year.

During the juvenile court proceeding TLO filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in her purse because the search had violated the Fourth Amendment. The juvenile court judge denied the motion because Choplick “had reasonable cause to believe that smoking, a violation of school policy, had occurred” TLO’s appeal of the juvenile judge’s ruling was rejected by the New Jersey Superior Court. The New Jersey Supreme Court then ruled that Choplick’s search of TLO’s purse had violated the prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure and reversed the decision. The state then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, the Court ruled that students were protected by the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately for TLO, the justices also held that in the interest of maintaining order and discipline, officials could search students in a public school environment without a warrant or meeting the probable cause standard that applies to adults as long as they had a “reasonable suspicion” to believe a rule or law had been violated. Because she had been caught smoking in the bathroom and taken directly to the office, the justices found it was reasonable to assume she had cigarettes in her purse which, in turn, gave the vice-principal reasonable cause to search the purse.

Voila, a new precedent—and the basis for laws and regulations that govern searches in public schools was born.

What does that mean for Ohio students? It means that under ORC 3313.20  a principal may search any pupil’s locker and its contents if they reasonably suspect that “…the locker or its contents contains evidence of a pupil’s violation of a criminal statute or of a school rule;”

In addition, the statute permits the random search of all lockers and contents at any time provided the school has posted signs in conspicuous places that notify students that all lockers are the property of the board of education. In this situation neither the Fourth Amendment nor the “reasonable suspicion” standard apply. Bottom line: if that notice is posted in your school don’t put anything in your locker you don’t want a teacher or principal to find.

The reasonable suspicion standard also applies to searches of desks, backpacks, and cars parked on school property. One exception: the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that the standard does not apply to searches of unattended backpacks.

The standard does not apply when students do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, i.e. items that are in plain view, school property such as computers, including laptops owned by the school that students are permitted to take home. Student activity on school internet networks and the browsing/download histories are also subject to search and review.

While the rules that apply to public schools may seem to invite invasion of students’ privacy, the rules that apply to private schools are even more draconian because, for all intents and purposes, privacy protections exist do not exist.

So there you have it class—understanding your rights, or lack thereof, will help you avoid trouble. And, oh, by the way, you don’t have to worry about Professor Dave searching your locker or electronic devices, I respect the Fourth Amendment and anyway, I just don’t have the time.

Atty. David Betras, family members call for independent investigation of Betty Jean Winston’s death while in custody at the Mercer County Jail, 36-year-old was found lifeless in her cell after being maced and tased by deputies

Citing serious concerns and numerous unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding Betty Jean Winston’s death while in custody at the Mercer County Jail, Attorney David Betras and members of Ms. Winston’s family today called on Mercer County District Attorney Peter Acker to allow an independent agency to investigate the tragic incident. Ms. Winston, who was 36 years old, was found dead in her cell on Wednesday, July 26 after being maced and tased by a Mercer County deputy.

“The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department should not be conducting the investigation into Ms. Winston’s death because they will in essence be investigating their own potential misconduct,” Atty. Betras said. To avoid any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest, my clients demand that District Attorney Acker immediately ask the Pennsylvania State Police to assume control of the inquiry. We believe that will ensure that the truth is uncovered and revealed to the family and the public”

Ms. Winston, who has a documented history of mental illness, was taken into custody on July 22, 2023 and charged with third degree misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct-Unreasonable Noise. Her bail was set at $15,000 which is more than seven times the maximum fine allowable for the offense under Pennsylvania law. She was unable to post bail and remained in jail. On July 26, deputies used a taser to subdue Ms. Winston and confined her to a cell and failed to provide her with any medical attention. She was discovered lifeless later that evening in the same location where deputies had left her earlier.

“We are disturbed by the fact that this African American woman died in and was spirited out of the Mercer County Jail in a manner that appears to have been designed to avoid media and public scrutiny,” Atty. Betras said. “This family and this community need and deserve answers from all involved and we will do whatever is necessary to obtain them.”

Text of the letter sent to Mercer County District Attorney Peter Acker:

RE:     The Estate of Betty Jean Winston, Deceased

            Date of Death: July 26, 2023

Dear Attorney Acker:

As you know, I represent the family members of Betty Jean Winston who tragically died while being held as a prisoner at the Mercer County Jail on the above date. Ms. Winston, a 36-year-old African American woman with documented history of mental illness, was taken into custody on July 22, 2023 on charges of third degree misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct-Unreasonable Noise, 18 Pa. C.S. § 5503(a)(2). Ms. Winston’s bond was set at $15,000 which is more than seven times the maximum fine allowable for the offense by Pennsylvania law.

While the facts have been limited, it has come to my attention that Ms. Winston was suffering from a schizophrenic episode throughout the time she was an inmate at the County Jail. On July 26, 2023, deputies used a taser to subdue Ms. Winston and confined her to a cell without any medical attention. Ms. Winston was discovered lifeless later that evening in the same locations where deputies left her.

It is my understanding that the Mercer County Sherriff’s Department is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding Ms. Winston’s death. This includes an inquiry into the Department’s own potential misconduct. To avoid any impropriety, my clients are demanding that the investigation be conducted by an independent agency such as the State Police. This act of transparency will allow Ms. Winston’s family to uncover the truth and ensure the public that the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976 is being properly implemented at the Mercer County Jail.

I appreciate your prompt attention towards addressing my clients’ concerns.

Sincerely,

David. J. Betras, Esquire

Car and truck accident at intersectiion.

Corporate greed, regulatory failures responsible for hundreds of deadly big rig accidents each year, BKM is fighting to make the roads safer by holding truckers accountable

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Since MahoningMatters offered me the opportunity to grace their website with this column each week, I’ve addressed everything from COVID to corruption, distracted driving to democracy and dozens of topics in between. But if pressed to pick the most important subject I write about, is highlighting the role personal injury attorneys and the civil justice play in saving lives, preventing injuries, and making our nation and our world safer places to live, work, travel, and play would be numero uno on my list.  

Over the years I’ve shined a spotlight on exploding Pintos, Boeing’s fatally flawed Max 8, lethal medical devices and drugs, cigarettes, and myriad other products and practices that sowed carnage, death, and destruction across the land. As my regular readers know, there is a common thread that runs through these largely avoidable tragedies. They were all the result of corporate greed, cost-benefit analyses that placed corporate profits above the value of human life, regulatory failures, secrecy and lies, suppression and persecution of whistleblowers, as well as influence peddling and lobbying by business interests and trade groups.  

And there is one additional point of commonality: the human toll associated with each of these deplorable episodes: the number of people hurt and killed would have been exponentially higher if lawyers like me, my partners, and the other members of the trial bar had not taken on the difficult and expensive task of suing the largest corporations in the world and winning large settlements for victims and families that forced businesses to make products safer or remove them from the market altogether.

I’m revisiting the topic today because America’s Dangerous Trucks, a recent episode of PBS’ outstanding Frontline documentary series clearly shows that corporate greed and the other factors that have put Americans needlessly at risk for decades are at play in the trucking industry. The film opens at the side of the road near the spot where 16-year-old Riley Hein burned to death when his car slid under and was pinned beneath the back wheels of a 40” trailer.

After losing Riley, his father Hunter learned what we do in the course of the documentary:  Riley and the hundreds like him who perish in what are known as “underride” crashes each year did not have to die. Those killed include Marianne Karth’s daughters AnnaLeah and Mary who lost their lives when the car in which they were riding was pushed under one truck after being hit by another. In the wake of the tragedies the families found that the trucking industry had been battling against underride crash safety measures proposed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) since 1981.

They also discovered that NHTSA, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which is responsible for aviation safety, is a captive agency controlled and dominated by the very industries it is charged with regulating and that NHTSA uses an economic formula to determine whether to impose new safety standards. If the cost equals more than $12.5 million for each life saved, it won’t be adopted. That’s the same type of cost-benefit analysis Lee Iacocca and Ford made when they decided to sell exploding Pintos.

I hope you share my disgust with the fact that the price of a human life was calculated by the government agency that is supposed to keep our highways safe rather than a profit-driven corporation. 

Which is not to say that the trucking industry and its trade group, the American Trucking Association (ATA) don’t have blood on their hands. Not only did they stop NHTSA from strengthening rear and side collision guards that would reduce the severity of underride crashes—a step that would add less than $250 to the cost of a trailer, they have kept truck safety legislation bottled up in Congress, and launched a successful campaign to convince state legislatures across the county to enact laws that will make it more difficult to hold truckers accountable for the deaths and injuries that occur when big rigs collide with passenger vehicles and motorcycles. Yes, it’s the big rig version of tort reform.

At the end of the film, we learn that the Hein’s sued the company that owned the truck that caused Riley’s death. In 2019 a jury awarded them $19 million—a figure that caught the attention of trailer makers and truckers, many of whom, in yet another demonstration of the power of the civil justice system, began installing improved rear and side underride guards.

Despite that important victory, Hunter Hein remains concerned. “You know, Riley was killed in 2015. We’re seven and a half years into this fight. It’s hard to just sit and watch and wait and hope that NHTSA will do the right thing. It’s really frustrating.”

“It’s very hard to get this agency to actually adhere to their mission to save lives. I mean, I’m an optimistic person, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I still think that the industry has a lot of power and a lot of undue influence with NHTSA. And it is incumbent, I think, upon all of us advocates and people that are very concerned about how many people are dying from side underride crashes to keep the pressure on NHTSA.”

I agree, and we should all demand that the agency free itself from the influence of the auto and trucking industries and begin to do its job.

A look back at SCOTUS’ 22-23 term, predictably conservative with a dash of surprise

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

On Friday, June 30, the nine learned women and men who preside over the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued their final decisions for the 2022-2023 term, sent their black robes to the dry cleaners, and high-tailed it out of the nation’s capital—some, perhaps on private jets, a topic I’ll address in a future column.

That means it is time for me to hand down my annual review of the justices’ work over the past 12 months, beginning with just how much work they actually did. Each year 5,000 to 7,000 cases are filed with the Court, the vast majority arrive as appeals from the federal Appellate and District Courts and the highest court in each state. In an average year SCOTUS accepts 75 to 80 cases or approximately one percent. This year the justices took up 60 and decided 58. Given the Court’s conservative majority, people on the left of the political spectrum probably wish the number had been six, those on the right would be thrilled if 600 or more had made it onto the docket.

Although a number of the 58 decisions deal with significant issues that will effect millions of Americans for decades to come, none will have the seismic impact of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which reversed Roe v. Wade and gave each state the authority to regulate abortion within its borders.  The aftershocks of that ruling are still being felt across the country, including here in Ohio, where a citizen initiated constitutional amendment guaranteeing reproductive freedom and abortion access may appear on the General Election ballot later this year.

With all that as preface, let’s take a look at some of the most important and closely watched cases decided during the term:

Biden v. Nebraska. Americans owe more than $1.78 trillion in student loan debt which is more than any type of debt other than mortgages. During the 2020 presidential election Joe Biden promised to cancel up to $10,000 of that debt per borrower. Wonder of wonders, after he won, he kept his promise and signed an executive order that wiped out $10,000 in student loans for borrowers with an annual income of less than $125,000. 

Officials in Nebraska, Missouri, and three other states were not amused. They sued, arguing that the Biden Administration did not have the statutory authority to implement the loan forgiveness program. A 6-3 majority of the Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts agreed and basically said everyone who owes has to pay up. As I write this the President, who noted that the government has forgiven $757 billion in loans to businesses made under the Paycheck Protection Program, is searching for a new way to deal with the problem.

Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and v. University of North Carolina. In these two separate cases, Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard’s affirmative action admissions program violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against Asian American applicants in favor of white applicants. The same plaintiffs argued that UNC’s program violates the Fourteenth Amendment by using race as a factor in admissions. The programs were upheld by the District and Appellate courts.

SCOTUS disagreed and in a 6-3 ruling overturned the lower courts and held that the use of race in college admissions is unconstitutional. In response, a number of colleges and universities are exploring utilizing class rather than race as a factor in making higher education more accessible to a wider segment of Americans.

Moore v. Harper and Allen v. Milligan These two cases which involve legislative redistricting and gerrymandering produced decisions that were surprising in light of the fact that the Court has in recent years handed down a number of decisions that eroded the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and approved partisan gerrymandering.

In Moore the Court rejected North Carolina lawmakers’ claim that the “independent state legislature” theory gave them the sole authority to draw whatever districts they wanted in any way they pleased. In a 6-3 opinion written by the Chief, the Court held that districts drawn by state authorities were subject to review by the federal courts. The ruling has special significance for Ohio that I will address next week.

In Allen, a 5-4 majority, again led by CJ Roberts, found that Alabama officials had violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by packing Black voters into a single district in a way that made it nearly impossible for Black voters to elect the candidates of their choice.

The two rulings provide a glimmer of hope that at some point before the end of the 21st Century our gerrymandering will be outlawed, and our electoral process will feature a modicum of fairness. OK, I’m not holding my breath, but I can dream can’t I?

Don’t let the clock run out: if you’ve been injured allowing the statute of limitations to expire could stop you from receiving the justice and just compensation you deserve

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

Statutes of limitations (SOL), laws that establish the maximum amount of time that parties involved in civil or criminal matter have to initiate a legal action, have been with us since the days of the Greek Republic and the Roman empire, which means they have been vexing and frustrating attorneys and citizens for thousands of years. And believe me, there are very few things as frustrating as having to tell someone who has been injured or wronged in some way that I can’t help them because the SOL that applies to their situation has run out.

In the vast majority of cases, it is not the potential client’s fault—aside from those of us who practice law most people have no idea that SOLs even exist or what the time limits are. To address that dilemma and reduce the chance that one of my loyal readers will be denied justice because the jurisprudential clock has run out, this week’s column will serve as a primer on this ancient, complicated, and confusing area of the law.

One caveat—how’s that for throwing a little Latin lawyerly lingo into mix—because SOLs are complicated and critical to the pursuit and disposition of cases, the information I’m providing should not be construed as legal advice. If you have been injured or harmed in some way and believe you have a cause of action, please, please, please consult the attorney of your choice immediately. Waiting too long or failing to do so could result in the courthouse door being needlessly slammed in your face—you should not allow that to happen.

Now, onto the topic of the day. Let’s begin with a look at the SOL that applies to personal injury cases like vehicle accidents, dog bites, product liability, premises liability which in common parlance is referred to as “slip and fall” and harm caused by other types of negligence. Under Ohio law the injured party has two years from the date the incident occurred to file suit. In addition, if a loved one is killed as a result of another party’s negligence families have two years from the date of death to file a wrongful death claim.  

Here’s a tip: don’t wait 23 months and 29 days to seek legal advice. It’s far better to explore whether you have a valid claim than to let the clock run out.

You probably noticed that medical malpractice was not listed above. That’s because med mal claims must be filed within one year of the date the injury was or should have been discovered or when the doctor/patient relationship ended, whichever occurs later. This more flexible time frame exists because it may not be immediately apparent that an injury has occurred.

In the interest of fairness, I feel compelled to note that the statute of limitations for legal malpractice mirrors the med mal SOL. Clients have one year from the date they discover or should have discovered that malpractice occurred or when the attorney-client relationship ends, whichever is later.

There is, however, a complicating factor when it comes to malpractice: something known as a statute of repose which sets a virtually non-flexible time limit for bringing actions against practitioners in Ohio. That means claims against attorneys, doctors, dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors must be brought no later than four years after the alleged malpractice took place.

There are exceptions—of course there are…Anyway, if a client exercising reasonable care and diligence, could not have discovered the legal malpractice within three years after the occurrence of the act or omission, but discovers it before the expiration of the four-year period they have a year after the discovery to bring an action.

A similar exemption exists for med mal and there’s a bonus exception: the statute of repose does not apply to situations in which a foreign object is left in a patient’s body during a procedure. If a scalpel turns up in an x-ray ten years after you had surgery, you’re free to file suit.

Here’s the bottom line: SOLs and statutes of repose were created to protect defendants, particularly those who are rich and powerful. Are they fair to injury victims and other plaintiffs? Probably not, but they won’t be disappearing in our lifetime, if ever, so it’s up to every citizen to avail themselves of the civil justice system when the need arises. 

Democracy word cloud

DAVID BETRAS: August’s ballot decision asking to create a 60% supermajority goes against majority rule

In the 220 years that elapsed since Ohio became a state, the General Assembly has never scheduled a special election for the sole purpose of considering a legislatively initiated constitutional amendment. That streak is about to come to an end. As I write this week’s column, the state’s 88 county boards of election, are preparing to do exactly that. This extraordinary situation provides context for a Civics lesson that I hope will provide voters with the information they need to make an informed decision when—and if-they cast a ballot on August 8.

Attorney David Betras
BKM Managing Partner David Betras

I say “if” because turnout for August specials is incredibly low. For example, only eight percent of the electorate participated in last year’s primaries for seats in the state house and senate. In fact, turnout has been so abysmal that the very same legislators who just scheduled the upcoming election actually voted to do away with them just a few months ago. I’ll have more to say about that in a bit.

For now, back to the Civics lesson. Let’s start with the basics: our form of government. While commonly referred to as democracies, the United States, Ohio, and the other 49 states are democratic republics in which the people vote for the representatives who do the actual governing. The Founding Fathers embraced this model because they believed it was the most effective and efficient way to manage the nation’s affairs.

The principle of majority rule is the engine that drives democratic republics. According to famed mathematician Kenneth May, majority rule is the only “fair” way to conduct elections because it does not allow some votes to count more than others and unlike super majority rules, it does not allow the status quo to prevail even though it received fewer votes.

Is the system perfect? Of course not. When our elected representatives abandon or ignore the will and wishes of their constituents due to corruption, gerrymandering, or the influence of big money, the public justifiably loses faith in government. That is exactly the situation that existed in Ohio at the beginning of the 20th Century. Outraged by a state government that was being sold to the highest bidders, a group of reformers and progressives convinced the voters to convene a Constitutional Convention in 1912.

During weeks of deliberations delegates wrote and voters later approved a proposal that serves as the antidote to unresponsive government: Article 2, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution which enables citizens to place an amendment directly before voters on a statewide ballot who must approve it by a simple majority vote.

The citizen-initiated amendment process is, as it should be, complicated and laborious. Over the past 111 years, 71 proposals have been placed before the voters, 19 have been approved. Many have improved our quality of life including imposing a10-mill limit on unvoted property taxes, home rule authority for cities and counties, banning smoking in public places, and raising the state’s minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. By any measure, the process has benefited Ohioans.

Which brings us back to the impending unprecedented August election. For a reason I will not address here, the Republican majority in the General Assembly is placing an amendment that will fundamentally change the rules that govern the initiative process on the ballot in  August. Their proposal will raise the threshold for approving initiated amendments from the century-old 50% plus one standard to a 60% supermajority. If passed it will erase the principle that is at the very heart of our system of government and replace it with minority rule.

And, in a final bit of irony, they will only need to secure 50% plus one vote to do it in  election they hope most Ohioans won’t notice.

Constitutional scholar and former Ohio House members Mike Curtin believes trashing Ohio’s 220-year-old tradition of respecting voters is a historic and contemptuous act of bad faith. Fortunately, the voters, thanks to the 1912 Constitutional Convention, will have the final say.