There is often a difference between real-world definitions and legal-world definitions. In the legal world, when a word or phrase is important to the interpretation of the law, the legislature defines the word or phrase in a statute. The statutory definition of a word or phrase is not always the same as the dictionary definition. For the purposes of DUI (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio) and serious vehicular crimes, the Ohio Revised Code provides definitions of ‘vehicle’ and ‘motor vehicle’. A case pending in the Ohio Supreme Court illustrates why statutory definitions are so important.
The case is State v. Fork. The defendant, Fork, was driving a Polaris utility terrain vehicle (UTV, aka side-by-side), and there were three passengers in the UTV. Fork made a turn, and the UTV overturned. As a result, one of the passengers suffered a broken arm and a broken nose. Fork took a breath alcohol test, and the result was .179. Fork was charged with Aggravated Vehicular Assault and Operating a Vehicle under the Influence (OVI).
To convict a defendant of Aggravated Vehicular Assault, the prosecution must prove the defendant, while operating a ‘motor vehicle’, caused serious physical harm to another person by committing the offense of OVI. Fork could only be found guilty of that charge if the UTV was a ‘motor vehicle’.
The phrase ‘motor vehicle’ has two definitions in Title 45 of the Ohio Revised Code. Both definitions indicate it is a vehicle “propelled or drawn by power other than muscular power or power collected from overhead trolley wires”. In section 4501.01, the definition of ‘motor vehicle’ specifically says, “Motor vehicle” does not include utility vehicles as defined in division (VV) of this section”. In section 4511.01, there is no exception for utility vehicles.
In Fork’s trial, Fork requested that the judge give the jury the definition of ‘motor vehicle’ found in section 4501.01: the one with the exception for utility vehicles. Instead, the judge gave the jury the definition of ‘motor vehicle’ found in section 4511.01: the one with no exception for utility vehicles. Fork was found guilty and appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals.
Court Clarifies Code
The Court of Appeals concluded the correct definition of ‘motor vehicle’ is the one in section 4501.01: the one with the exception for utility vehicles. The Court noted that section applies to the ‘penal laws, while section 4511.11 only applies to Revised Code Chapters 4511 and 4513.
The Court then addressed whether Fork’s UTV was a ‘motor vehicle’ or a ‘utility vehicle’. The UTV, as designed, seemed to meet the definition of ‘utility vehicle’, as it was “a self-propelled vehicle designed with a bed, principally for the purpose of transporting material or cargo in connection with construction, agricultural, forestry, grounds maintenance, lawn and garden, materials handling, or similar activities.”
The prosecution argued the court should consider how the UTV was used at the time of the offense rather than how it was designed. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, stating, “Principal purpose, as included in the statutory definition, implies a utility vehicle could serve another purpose or use without losing its designation of “utility vehicle.” The Court held the UTV was not a ‘motor vehicle’, so Fork could not be convicted of Aggravated Vehicular Assault.
The prosecution appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case. The parties submitted briefs, and the case is scheduled for oral arguments on February 6, 2024. I predict the Ohio Supreme Court will affirm the decision of the Sixth District Court of Appeals. I further predict the legislature will change the law for Aggravated Vehicular Assault (and Aggravated Vehicular Homicide) so the offenses can be committed with a ‘vehicle’ rather than a ‘motor vehicle’.
About the Author: Shawn Dominy is a leading OVI lawyer in Ohio and the founder of the Dominy Law Firm in Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached through his law firm’s website: Dominy Law Firm.