By Ed Runyan
Because of her job for the past 10 years, Andrea Paventi closely watches the way courts in Mahoning and Trumbull counties deal with people who drive while intoxicated.
She gives most of the courts a failing grade based on statistics showing that barely half of the people charged with operating a motor vehicle impaired end up with an OVI conviction.
Paventi, director of the Mahoning County TASC [Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime], a nonprofit organization that tracks and tests Mahoning County OVI offenders and runs an OVI school, said the two counties actually have a “bad reputation” in some circles for low OVI conviction rates.
“Attorneys have said this same thing doesn’t happen in Columbus or other areas of the state. It’s unique to this area,” Paventi said.
The horrific crash last week in Newton Township that killed a Newton Falls couple and seriously injured the other driver may illustrate the problem with how repeat OVI offenders are treated, Paventi said.
The couple, Jamie Danes, 37, and his wife, Emily, 29, were headed home from Niles, where they celebrated their wedding anniversary with dinner and a movie, when they were struck head-on by Paul Wodianka, 42, of Diamond, whose 1997 Cadillac crossed the center line at a high rate of speed, the Ohio State Highway Patrol reported. The Danes’ vehicle was in its proper lane.
The impact crushed the front of the Daneses’ Chevrolet Impala nearly to the firewall. Jamie and Emily, who have an 8-year-old son, were pronounced dead at the scene. The state patrol has a blood sample from Wodianka, who was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center with serious injuries, and will use it to determine whether Wodianka was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident.
Lt. Brian Holt of the patrol’s Southington post said police suspect Wodianka was under the influence.
HISTORY OF OFFENSES
Wodianka lived on West Rockwell Road in Austintown in 1996 when he was charged with his first operating-a-motor-vehicle-impaired offense. He was 26, and the charge was called driving under the influence then. Judge Fred Bailey of the area court in Austintown dismissed the charge without much comment in the court record.
Wodianka was convicted of OVI in that same court four years later by Judge Joseph M. Houser after being charged by the state patrol. Wodianka received six days jail time, was placed on a year’s probation, had a six-month license suspension with work privileges and was ordered to receive a substance-abuse assessment.
He violated the terms of his probation, which caused him to spend two months in the Mahoning County jail.
Over the next few years, Wodianka was charged with several offenses in Mahoning County — receiving stolen property, failure to maintain assured clear distance, disorderly conduct and driving under suspension.
He never again was convicted of OVI, though he was charged with it two more times.
After Wodianka crashed his car into a guardrail and tree on state Route 62 in Canfield on April 3, 2008, state trooper Philip Robinson said he noticed Wodianka’s speech was slurred and his eyes were bloodshot. Wodianka refused to take a blood-alcohol test and was charged with OVI.
He was convicted in area court in Canfield of having physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, fined $750 plus court costs and sentenced to three days in jail.
On Oct. 10, 2010, Wodianka was arrested by Austintown police after an officer observed his pickup truck crossing the solid, yellow center line three times on state Route 46.
The officer charged him with OVI and several drug offenses after officers found Ativan (a Valium-type of drug) and Roxicodone (a pain medication) in a pill bottle in the truck.
Wodianka eventually was convicted of a drug charge in area court in Austintown indicating the presence of drugs in his system, fined $750 and sentenced to 23 days in jail. His driver’s license was suspended for one year. An alcohol assessment was ordered.
Because Wodianka was charged with OVI three times that didn’t result in OVI convictions, Paventi said she believes Wodianka is an example of why the OVI conviction rate is low in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
One of the troubling trends, Paventi said, is that many OVI offenders whose penalties should be enhanced because of multiple offenses or high concentrations of alcohol in their system are being convicted on a lower-level OVI charge.
When Ohio House Bill 163 took effect in 2004, it instituted more harsh penalties for repeat OVI offenders, such as a mandatory prison sentence of one to five years for anyone with five or more convictions in the past 20 years, and increased penalties for OVI offenders who refuse a chemical or Breathalyzer test if they have more than one prior OVI conviction, Paventi said.
“We want high-tier (high concentrations of alcohol) and multiple-DUI offenders to have more accountability for their actions than just three-day DUI schools,” she said.
Paventi’s statistics, which she localized from OVI statistics generated by the Ohio Supreme Court, indicate that one court in Mahoning and one in Trumbull have relatively high OVI conviction rates: the area court in Sebring (68 percent) and Warren Municipal Court (85 percent). The courts in Columbiana County also average 83 percent.
LACK OF JAIL SPACE
Paventi said one of the problems in Mahoning County is the lack of sufficient jail space to lock up OVI offenders. She has met with county officials to discuss the possibility of reopening the county’s minimum-security jail so that OVI offenders could be housed there at the offender’s own cost, but the idea hasn’t gotten much traction.
Judges in Mahoning County know that jail time is not an option in many cases because of lack of jail space, so it affects the sentencing, she said.
Judge Patrick Cunning of Campbell Municipal Court said the lack of jail space is always a factor in sentencing, but not just for OVI.
“Resources play a role in the entire system,” he said.
Judge Cunning said a jail stay resulting from an OVI conviction isn’t necessarily going to alter an offender’s lifestyle. Treatment is a more effective factor, he said.
Other judges contacted for this story did not return calls seeking comment.
Judge Cunning said he’s never been made aware that the area has a lower OVI conviction rate than other areas.
HIGH RATE IN WARREN
Greg Hicks, Warren law director, said a variety of factors can contribute to the OVI conviction rate, including the quality of the evidence from law enforcement.
But Hicks said he thinks having two full-time prosecutors handling OVI cases in Warren results in more consistent handling than when smaller courts with part-time prosecutors handle them.
Part-time prosecutors usually have a private practice in addition to their prosecutorial duties and might be more inclined to accept a plea and a reduction because of the amount of time involved in going to trial on an OVI, Hicks said.
“We don’t pussyfoot around. We take DUI seriously,” Hicks said of Warren prosecutors. “We’re here eight hours anyway. If they don’t want to take the deal, we say, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow.’”
Judge Thomas Gysegem of Warren Municipal Court notes that the physical control charge Wodianka was convicted of is a DUI-related offense with similar penalties as DUI. When he sees that type of charge in someone’s record, it impacts the sentence the person gets the next time they are charged with OVI.
Judge Gysegem said it’s important for judges to ensure that OVI offenders undergo the treatment programs he orders for them. In his court, a pretrial hearing is scheduled for several months after the conviction to find out whether the treatment took place.