Bill to raise drug trafficking penalties now also lowers health order violation penalties

State and local officials, worried about the spread of COVID-19, are cracking down on mass crowds. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

A bill originally written to enhance drug trafficking laws around Ohio’s rehab centers now also lowers the consequences for violating pandemic health orders.

The amendment to Senate Bill 55 joined the bill in a 58-35 Ohio House vote on Wednesday that went along party lines. While the bulk of the bill raises the severity of the crime for those convicted of trafficking in drugs within 1,000 feet of a rehabilitation center from a fourth-degree felony to a third-degree felony, the amendment takes away any prison time related to a violation of health orders specifically related to a pandemic. 

Any violation after the first offense would be treated like a minor misdemeanor and warrant a fine — $150 per violation for an order by the Ohio Department of Health and $100 per violation or a local health department order.

State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, made the case for the amendment, arguing that simple mistakes made by restaurant owners in not spacing their tables far enough away should not warrant potential criminal charges. 

“I think during times of a pandemic common sense and working collaboratively can go a long way,” Swearingen said during the House’s session.

Democrats said taking away some of the consequences of violating health orders during coronavirus or other health emergency would jeopardize health and safety, and Republicans said the amendment was a step forward in lowering the prison populations.

State Rep. Dave Leland, D-Columbus, said there was no amendment “more ill-timed than this particular amendment,” and that encouraging following the rules of the health department was important.

“To send the message out to people now in a historic moment in Ohio and the United States history that somehow these orders that are being given by our local health departments and the state health department are less important than they were before this pandemic started is definitely sending the wrong message,” Leland said.

For those noting the dangers of prison overpopulation and overcriminalization, state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said this amendment should be a welcome change.

“This amendment takes a step toward decriminalization, this amendment prevents people from being put in jail where their health and safety might be further jeopardized,” Seitz told House members.

After the vote, House Speaker Larry Householder, emphasized that this bill and SB 1, which was passed during the same session, were not meant to limit the power of Dr. Amy Acton, head of the Ohio Department of Health, or of the governor. SB 55’s amendment was an effort to make sure people weren’t wrongfully faulted for mistakes, he said.

“To be able to give a criminal penalty that’s on your record and could affect your ability to get a license… probably is an overreach,” Householder said.

Senate Bill 55 was originally a controversial piece of SB 3, but was separated from the bill’s language in December. 

The ACLU has consistently spoken out against SB 55 since it was brought up last year. In a statement before the vote, the group said defendants don’t have to know whether or not they’re within 1,000 feet of a center to be charged with a more severe crime.

“This legislation is designed to add significantly more people to Ohio’s already dangerously overcrowded prison system at a time when Ohio has gained national and international attention about the widespread problems with COVID-19 in (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections) facilities,” the organization wrote in a statement.

The overall bill passed with a 70-23 vote. It previously passed the Senate with a 31-2 vote (without the health order amendment). It now goes to the governor for his signature.