MILLERSBURG -- He pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, but, due to a charging error and language in the law that prohibits the operator of a buggy from being so charged, a Sugarcreek man ended up being convicted of failure to yield.
On March 22, Robert S. Coblentz, 75, 2662 State Route 93, pleaded guilty in Holmes County Municipal Court to a single count of vehicular manslaughter, a second-degree misdemeanor.
On Wednesday, April 26, he withdrew his guilty plea and the charge was amended to failure to yield, a minor misdemeanor. He was fined $150.
Joyce Morris, 74, Maple Street NW, Sugarcreek, died Jan. 20 from injuries sustained in the crash, which occurred at the intersection of state Route 39 and County Road 114 in Walnut Creek Township, according to the Wooster Post of the State Highway Patrol.
The charging error was a consequence of language specifying the offense was committed by the operator of a motor vehicle, said Holmes County Prosecutor Sean Warner, noting, "Unfortunately no one noticed it (initially). We certainly don't want to rely on a conviction that was wrongly charged."
Vehicular manslaughter falls within Ohio's criminal offenses, and, unlike most traffic laws, which simply refer to vehicles, not necessarily those that are motorized, and by which buggy drivers must abide, explained Hyde, who, after realizing the error immediately contacted Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Muzic.
In correspondence subsequent to that discussion, Hyde wrote to Muzic, "I am not willing to say that my research was exhaustive in this matter, but from a commonsense standpoint and looking at the requirements motor vehicle, it is hard to see how the term 'motor vehicle' ... could apply to horse and buggy."
"I am uncomfortable with a gentleman, even if he pled guilty, to be convicted of an offense which it appears he clearly might not have done," continued Hyde, suggesting an alternative criminal charge, which gives consideration to the fact Coblentz was operating a horse-drawn buggy, may be more appropriate.
Warner agrees with Hyde's interpretation of the law, noting the vehicular manslaughter charge would apply to someone operating a car, truck or even a moped, "the letter of the law excludes buggies for now."
"The prosecutor's office did a very good thing here. We realized what you pled guilty to -- you were not operating a motor vehicle, you were not guilty of that offense -- they could have held and told the court you pled guilty, the court found you guilty, sentence him that way. But, they've agreed to let you withdraw your plea because they've determined that what you did did not violate that vehicular manslaughter charge."
Even Coblentz said he did not realize there was any difference because other traffic laws apply to horse-drawn buggies.
"The fact that they were willing to revisit this says a lot for this community and that they're not interested in just locking people up," said Hyde, adding, "They want to make sure justice is done. I think it is today."
Warner said he is likely to speak to local lawmakers about the discrepancy in language, "especially given the amount of buggies in this area."
Hyde agrees the issue may be little more than a "loophole they haven't considered," and is something worthy of review.
"I think it was an oversight on behalf of the legislature," he said, noting, "I think the prosecutor's office and the court did what we had to do to follow the law."
And, while he's "proud they fixed it," Hyde said, "I have it easy. I have the benefit of just having to follow the law as written."
While Hyde did not proceed to sentencing on the vehicular manslaughter charge, during which he would have considered the impact on the victim's family, he said it is unlikely he would have sentenced Coblentz to jail.
"I believe I have had five such cases as a defense attorney, and none did a day in jail, because they are accidents," said Hyde, noting he has, when circumstances warrant, seen defendants sentenced to anywhere from 30-90 days.
The vehicular manslaughter charge carries a potential penalty of up to 90 days in jail, but even at the plea hearing, Hyde told Coblentz, "With what I know of the facts, I can tell you you're not looking at a maximum penalty."
Prior to Wednesday's hearing, Warner said, his office, through victim advocate Andy Zedella, spoke to Morris' family about the need to amend the charge.
In the end, they were at least pleased Coblentz complied with their request to have an eye exam, said Warner, noting Coblentz's vision "was 20/20 or better."
According to the patrol, Morris, driving a 2011 Chrysler 200, was northbound (within a mile-long north-south stretch) on state Route 39, when she crashed into a horse, pulling a buggy, which had been eastbound on County Road 114 and pulled into her path.
Coblentz was the operator of that buggy, from which he and his wife, Effie, 67, were ejected. The horse died on contact.
Morris, who was trapped inside the car, had to be extricated by mechanical means. She was flown via emergency helicopter from the scene to Summa Akron City Hospital, where she eventually died.
Robert Coblentz reported he believed he failed to fully pull up to the stop sign, causing another sign, located further down the road, to obstruct his view of the oncoming car, according to the patrol.
Reporter Christine Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.