COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The Ohio Supreme Court grappled Tuesday with the question of whether a city can be considered a victim of a crime under state law and whether it is entitled to restitution for crimes.
Michael Knab called 911 in April 2018 to report an active shooter at his home in Centerville, claiming someone had been shot. Because of the alarming nature of the report, most officers in the Centerville Police Department responded to the call.
But once there, Knab’s mother and a man staying at the home informed the officers that there was no active shooter and no one had been shot or injured. She told the police that her son may have been taking methamphetamines and was paranoid.
Police found no firearms on the property during a search and saw no signs that any guns had been fired. They did find drug paraphernalia, a meat cleaver, a machete, unidentified pills and ammunition. Knab was charged with false reporting and improper use of 911.
He was found guilty of both charges. The Kettering Municipal Court ordered him to pay Centerville $1,375 in restitution, a number calculated by Centerville police for the lost time officers spent responding to the call from Knab rather than performing their regular duties.
Knab appealed his conviction and sentence to Ohio’s Second District Court of Appeals, which affirmed his conviction but vacated the restitution order. The court found that the city cannot be a victim as defined by Ohio law and that Centerville did not experience economic loss in a way that would allow it to be receive restitution under state law.
Centerville appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the city is a victim under the so-called Marsy’s Law and is entitled to restitution. Marsy’s Law, approved by Ohio voters in 2017, gives crime victims specific rights in the legal system and expands who qualifies as a victim.
The state’s high court agreed to decide whether a municipality can be considered a victim, but it will not review the claim that Centerville suffered economic loss in its response to Knab’s 911 call.
Tuesday morning’s hearing was held via teleconference due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Steve Bacon, representing Centerville, argued that a city can be a victim and that determination should be made on a case-by-case basis. He said Centerville officers were pulled away from their other duties to answer a bogus call for help.
“Were there calls that went unanswered, other citizens that did not have police resources as a result of this?” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor asked.
Bacon said that was not covered in the restitution hearing and he did not know, but that the unique aspect of this crime is the abuse of a 911 system as well as a false report to the police, and Marsy’s Law entitles victims to restitution for injuries suffered as a result of the act.
Justice Patrick DeWine said that, under Bacon’s definition, municipalities would be entitled to restitution for any crime. Bacon answered that there would be checks under the terms of the law, which cites direct and proximate harm.
“You're saying that the city had to expend resources as the result of his crime. Isn’t that the case in any crime?” asked DeWine, son of the state’s Republican governor.
In response, Bacon defined direct and proximate harm as “an act or omission, which, in the natural and continuous sequence of events, directly produces injury, and without which the injury would not have occurred.”
DeWine pressed him further.