An Ohio city is trying to use the state's Marsy's Law—intended to protect the rights of crime victims—to demand a man pay them back the costs of sending police to respond to a false 911 call.
Back in April 2018, Michael Knab dialed 911 from his home in Centerville, Ohio, telling a police dispatcher that there was an active shooter there and that somebody had been shot. There was no shooter. Police searched the home and didn't even find any firearms. According to a court report of the case, witnesses said Knab had been smoking meth and was hallucinating. A friend who was temporarily living at the home also testified that Knab had mild schizophrenia.
Knab was subsequently charged and convicted of filing a false police report and misusing a 911 system. But the city didn't stop there. Centerville claimed that as a "victim" of a crime—Knab's false 911 call—the city was entitled to financial restitution under the state's Marsy's Law. It wanted Knab to pay back $1,375.56 to the Centerville Police Department for the cost of responding to the call.
Knab is resisting. He appealed both his conviction (arguing that he genuinely believed he was in danger when he called 911) and the demands for restitution. The courts have upheld his conviction but the Court of Appeals for Ohio's Second Appellate District in Montgomery County has tossed out the restitution demands. The court ruled that while a city can be a victim of crimes like embezzlement and vandalism, government agencies cannot be considered "victims" of crimes that they're responding to in an official capacity. It cannot demand restitution simply for the cost of responding to calls based on the wording of the law.
Centerville asked the Ohio Supreme Court to take the case and reconsider the lower court's ruling. The court has said it will consider the question of whether a municipality can qualify as a "victim" under Marsy's Law.
This conflict is a result of one of the top criticisms of Marsy's Laws—they're vague about what constitutes a victim, and therefore leave open the possibility of any number of unusual claims for financial restitution. The Ohio Marsy's Law expands the definition of victim to include "a person against whom the criminal offense or delinquent act is committed or who is directly and proximately harmed by the commission of the offense or act."
The second part of this definition has set off any number of alarm bells from critics. Who is to decide who is "directly and proximately harmed" by a crime? Municipalities insist that pretty much every crime from drug use to homelessness causes the municipality economic harm. What would stop Centerville from demanding restitution from defendants for every crime that requires police intervention? If this restitution demand is upheld, doesn't this both discourage people from calling 911 and potentially encourage police to arrest people who do if they decide the calls weren't serious enough?
The American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio has submitted an amicus brief supporting Knab's claim. And last week, the editorial board of The Columbus Dispatch took a formal position opposing Centerville's demand for restitution. It warns that "allowing cities to collect money as 'crime victims' would create an unhealthy incentive for local governments to file criminal charges and would put them in competition with true victims for restitution dollars."
More about the unintended consequences of victims' rights laws here.