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Date: 11-07-2018

Case Style:

STATE OF OHIO v. ERIC M. JOHNSON

Case Number: 27809

Judge: Rosemarie A. Hall

Court: COURT OF APPEALS OF OHIO SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Plaintiff's Attorney: GARRETT P. BAKER

Defendant's Attorney: JOYCE M. DEITERING

Description:





Eric M. Johnson appeals from his conviction and sentence following a no
contest plea to one count of menacing, a fourth-degree misdemeanor.
{¶ 2} In his sole assignment of error, Johnson contends the trial court violated his
Sixth Amendment right to compulsory process by prohibiting him from subpoenaing
witnesses.
{¶ 3} The record reflects that Johnson was charged with menacing following a
June 4, 2017 dispute with a neighbor over a driveway. Johnson pled not guilty and
requested a jury trial. Prior to trial, he subpoenaed several witnesses. The State
responded with a motion to quash the subpoenas. It also filed a motion in limine to
preclude testimony about one or more allegedly irrelevant prior incidents. After hearing
arguments on the two motions, the trial court overruled the motion to quash, finding it “too
restrictive.” (Tr. at 104). The trial court sustained the motion in limine, however, to the
extent that it sought to preclude Johnson from introducing evidence of prior incidents in
his case-in-chief. But the trial court noted that it could change its mind and make a
different ruling at trial. (Id. at 103-104). Shortly after the trial court’s disposition of these
motions, Johnson elected to plead no contest. The trial court found him guilty and
sentenced him accordingly.1
1 Johnson’s sentence included a suspended ten-day jail term and six months of supervised probation followed by six months of unsupervised probation. Johnson did not seek a stay and now has completed his term of supervised probation. The record does not reflect whether he remains on unsupervised probation. In any event, we note that the trial court’s judgment ordered Johnson to pay court costs. The trial court’s online docket reflects that those costs remain unpaid. Therefore, his appeal is not moot regardless of whether he has completed the other aspects of his sentence. See State v. Ruley, 2d Dist. Miami No. 2017-CA-10, 2018-Ohio-3201, ¶ 10 (“Nevertheless, the trial court did impose court costs, and nothing in the record suggests that Ruley has paid those costs. Unpaid


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{¶ 4} On appeal, Johnson contends the trial court erred in prohibiting him from
subpoenaing witnesses. But the record belies this claim. As set forth above, the record
reflects that multiple witnesses were subpoenaed on Johnson’s behalf. The State filed a
motion to quash the subpoenas, and the trial court overruled the motion. Having reviewed
the record, we see no evidence that the trial court prohibited Johnson from subpoenaing
any witnesses.
{¶ 5} Despite the wording of his assignment of error, Johnson’s real argument
appears to be that the trial court erred in sustaining the State’s motion in limine to preclude
certain testimony from his witnesses. (See Appellant’s brief at 9-10). The trial court made
clear, however, that its liminal ruling was tentative. It cautioned defense counsel not to
introduce the challenged evidence in Johnson’s case-in-chief “unless we have discussed
it and the court makes a ruling.” (Tr. at 104).
{¶ 6} This court has recognized that “a no-contest plea generally does not preserve
for appeal a trial court’s ruling on a motion in limine.” State v. Monticue, 2d Dist. Miami
No. 06-CA-33, 2007-Ohio-4615, ¶ 16. Given the preliminary and anticipatory nature of a
liminal ruling, the evidentiary issue must be raised again at trial to preserve it for appeal.2
Here there was no trial because Johnson pled no contest. Therefore, his challenge to the
court costs alone suffice to prevent a judgment from being moot, even if an appellant has completed his jail sentence.”).

2 An exception to this rule exists when a motion in limine is the functional equivalent of a motion to suppress. This exception applies when the subject of the motion can be resolved with finality after an evidentiary hearing and without the need for a full trial to consider the evidence in the context of other evidence. See, e.g., State v. Reed, 2016Ohio-7416, 72 N.E.2d 1196, ¶ 27 (2d Dist.). Here the State’s motion in limine was not the functional equivalent of a motion to suppress because the trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing and, more importantly, the trial court needed to consider the subject of the motion in the context of other evidence at trial.


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trial court’s ruling on the State’s motion in limine was not preserved for appeal.
{¶ 7} The issue is further complicated, however, by the fact that Johnson appears
to have believed when he entered his no-contest plea that he could appeal the trial court’s
ruling, and neither the trial court nor defense counsel disabused him of that notion.
Following its ruling, the trial court took a brief recess. When the proceedings resumed,
Johnson and his attorney informed the trial court that, in light of the ruling on the motion
in limine, Johnson wanted to proffer the excluded testimony and plead no contest. (Tr. at
108-109). Defense counsel then told the trial court that Johnson “understands that this is
the way to proceed for purposes of appeal.” (Id. at 117). The trial court also told Johnson
“this is a way so that the case can be appealed, where the court of appeals will look at
the facts but you aren’t admitting you’re guilty.” (Id. at 118).
{¶ 8} Under similar circumstances, a defendant’s no-contest plea has been found
not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered. In State v. Engle, 5th Dist. Fairfield
No. 38-CA-OCT-92, 1994 WL 476390 (Aug. 11, 1994), the defendant argued that her no
contest plea was invalid because it had been based on a representation that she could
appeal certain rulings, including a ruling on a motion in limine. Id. at *3. The Fifth District
rejected her argument, finding no “promise” by the prosecutor that she could appeal
certain issues and finding nothing in the record to support a conclusion that she had
entered the plea solely for purposes of appealing those issues. Id. at *4. On further review,
the Ohio Supreme Court reversed in State v. Engle, 74 Ohio St.3d 525, 660 N.E.2d 450
(1996). It noted that the defendant and her attorney believed she could appeal the
adverse rulings after a no-contest plea and that “[t]he trial court listened without uttering
a word of correction.” Id. at 527. The Ohio Supreme Court then concluded:


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* * * There can be no doubt that the defendant’s plea was predicated
on a belief that she could appeal the trial court’s rulings that her counsel
believed had stripped her of any meaningful defense. Therefore, her plea
was not made knowingly or intelligently. Consequently, we remand this
cause to the trial court with instructions that Mrs. Engle be given the
opportunity to withdraw her plea and proceed to trial. * * *
Id. at 528.
{¶ 9} One distinguishing feature between Engle and the present case is that the
defendant in Engle raised as an assignment of error the invalidity of her plea due to her
misunderstanding of the effect of pleading no contest. Here, Johnson’s actual assignment
of error only alleges a violation of his right to compulsory process due to a denial of his
right to subpoena witnesses. Construing his appellate brief more broadly, it also
challenges the trial court’s ruling on the motion in limine. The brief says nothing, however,
about the invalidity of Johnson’s plea or about him misunderstanding the effect of a no
contest plea. In similar circumstances, however, this court on occasion still has found a
no-contest plea to be invalid. In State v. Kendall, 2d Dist. Champaign No. 2008 CA 7,
2008-Ohio-5647, for example, the defendant argued on appeal that the trial court had
erred in making a ruling on a motion in limine that permitted the State to introduce other
acts evidence at trial. On review, this court noted that the defendant had pled no contest
after the trial court’s adverse liminal ruling and that the plea had been entered “with the
trial court’s assurance that its ruling was appealable.” Id. at ¶ 7. This court concluded that
the liminal ruling was not appealable in light of the no contest plea. Therefore, this court
held that the trial court’s acceptance of the no-contest plea constituted plain error. Id. at


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¶ 7. Importantly, however, the Kendall court also predicated its decision on the conclusion
that the trial court’s liminal decision was wrong. Id. at ¶ 6.
{¶ 10} Unlike Kendall, we decline to find plain error here despite the mistaken
belief by Johnson and his attorney that a no-contest plea would preserve the ability to
appeal the trial court’s liminal ruling. As a threshold matter, “[a]lthough we may notice
plain error that was not raised below, any non-jurisdictional error still must be raised by a
party on appeal before we properly may correct it.” State v. Lewis, 2017-Ohio-9311, 102
N.E.3d 1169, ¶ 17, fn. 7 (2d Dist.). Johnson has not asserted on appeal that the trial court
committed plain error in allowing him to plead no contest without ensuring that he
understood such a plea would waive his challenge to the ruling on the motion in limine.
{¶ 11} Even setting aside Johnson’s failure to raise any plain-error argument, we
note that “[a]n appellate court has the discretion to notice plain error under Crim.R. 52(B)
‘with the utmost caution, under exceptional circumstances, and only to prevent a manifest
miscarriage of justice.’ ” State v. Zimpfer, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 26062, 2014-Ohio
4401, ¶ 29, quoting State v. Long, 53 Ohio St.2d 91, 372 N.E.2d 804 (1978), paragraph
three of the syllabus. We are not able to exercise that discretion here because the record
demonstrates that the trial court’s ruling on the motion in limine was correct, and there is
nothing in the record to suggest that the liminal ruling would have changed during the
trial. Therefore, we see no plain error and no manifest miscarriage of justice in Johnson’s
plea of no contest based on a mistaken belief that he could challenge the trial court’s
ruling.
{¶ 12} In connection with Johnson’s no-contest plea, the prosecutor provided a
statement of facts. According to the prosecutor, on June 4, 2017, several of the victim’s


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family members were returning to his home, and they moved over from the victim’s portion
of the driveway to a portion of the Johnson’s driveway so that the victim could pull in and
park his car. (Tr. at 113). Johnson opened the front door of his house and yelled at the
people to get off of his driveway. The people moved after the victim parked. When the
victim exited his car, Johnson yelled and threatened the victim, saying “I’ll f**k you up and
the police know it!” (Id.). The victim believed that Johnson would assault him. (Id.). As a
result, a menacing charge was filed. (Id.).
{¶ 13} As part of the no-contest plea, the trial court permitted Johnson to proffer
the testimony that he would have presented if the State’s motion in limine had been
denied. Defense counsel proffered that Johnson would have presented evidence
concerning a confrontation that had occurred four days before the incident in question.
Counsel proffered that the evidence would have shown that Johnson had been shot at or
otherwise assaulted by the victim on that prior occasion. (Id. at 108-109, 115). On appeal,
Johnson contends his excluded evidence would have supported an affirmative defense
of “justification” under R.C. 2901.05. (See Appellant’s brief at 10). This argument fails for
two reasons.
{¶ 14} In the trial court, counsel did not argue or contend that the evidence the
court preliminarily prohibited would support an affirmative defense of justification. Rather,
counsel’s only contention at that time was that the evidence of what happened four days
earlier would provide context to the threat made on the date of the offense. “We were
looking to show the ongoing course of tension between the two neighbors and this
incident.” (Tr. at 103). “The statement that Mr. Johnson, at least would have testified that
he made, would have not made sense to the jury without the benefit of any testimony


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regarding the [events of May] thirty first.” (Id. at 109). Legal issues not brought to the
attention of the trial court generally may not be raised for the first time on appeal. State v.
Childs, 14 Ohio St.2d 56, 236 N.E.2d 545 (1968), paragraph three of the syllabus.
{¶ 15} Even if the argument had been made that the liminal evidence could have
been relevant to prove a defense of justification, the evidence manifestly would not have
supported such an affirmative defense. Johnson’s appellate brief quotes R.C.
2901.05(D)(1)(b), which provides that an affirmative defense is “[a] defense involving an
excuse or justification peculiarly within the knowledge of the accused, on which the
accused can fairly be required to adduce supporting evidence.” We are unconvinced,
however, on the facts of this case, that the victim’s alleged assault on Johnson
conceivably could have justified Johnson engaging in menacing by threatening to harm
the victim. No rational trier of fact could have found that Johnson was entitled by law to
threaten to “f**k up” the victim even if the victim four days earlier had assaulted Johnson.
Therefore, the trial court did not err in precluding testimony from Johnson or his witnesses
about the prior incident. Had the admissibility of the prior incident been properly preserved
and raised on appeal, we would have determined the ruling was correct and the trial court
did not err in that regard.

Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we are unable to exercise our discretion to notice
plain error regarding the trial court’s failure to correct the mistaken belief by Johnson, his attorney or the court as to whether a no-contest plea preserved an appeal of the ruling on the motion in limine, because there was no error or plain error as to the admission of the evidence and the result would have been thesamehad an appeal proceeded.

Johnson’s assignment of error is overruled, and the trial court’s judgment is affirmed.

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