Ohio Enacts Criminal Law Overhaul: What College Students Need to Know

January 9, 2023
Anna E. Bullock, Susan Stone and Kristina Supler
car pulled over by police

Last week, Governor Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 288 into law. The nearly 1,000-page omnibus bill involves the first major overhaul of Ohio criminal law in several years. The bill implements several changes to laws that may affect Ohio students in particular, including changes to distracted driving penalties, underage drinking penalties, laws shielding those who seek medical attention for overdose from criminal prosecution, and the criminal record expungement processes. The bill is set to take effect on April 3, 2023. No student (and no parent) wishes to become embroiled in a potential criminal investigation or prosecution, and knowledge of the relevant law can be a first step to promoting student safety. This article describes several changes brought about by SB 288.

Greater Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws

SB 288 has special implications for Ohio college and high school students who are at higher risk for distracted driving. The youth and young adult age group of 15-20 represents 7% of all distracted driving fatalities, and is the highest percentage of total fatalities among any age group. In just under four years, 46,099 Ohio car accidents have been dubbed “distracted-related” by the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Those accidents resulted in 151 deaths. The Ohio legislature has responded to increasing distracted driving fatalities through SB 288, which toughens distracted driving laws.

Under SB 288, distracted driving is now a primary traffic offense for all ages. This means that Ohio drivers may be pulled over immediately if they are observed using a cell phone or are engaged in other distracted behavior (think texting while driving). Under the previous law, distracted driving was a primary offense only for juvenile drivers. Officers were not permitted to stop adult distracted drivers unless those drivers also committed a separate traffic violation, for example, running a red light or speeding.

Police will issue warnings to those found violating the law until October 2023, within six months of its effective date. Following this grace period, police will have authority to issue citations. Penalties include a fine up to $150 for a first offense and two points on the license which remain until a distracted driving safety course is completed. Penalties may increase for repeat offenses.

Good Samaritan Law Expanded

Ohio has a “Good Samaritan” law that provides immunity from arrest or prosecution for those who seek medical assistance for an individual suffering an overdose of any drug—either for those overdosing themselves or those who seek assistance for others. The law requires that those receiving such legal protection be referred to addiction treatment within 30 days. SB 288 adds immunity for drug paraphernalia possession to those who seek immunity pursuant to the Good Samaritan law.

Fentanyl Test Strips Decriminalized (And Free)

SB 288 decriminalizes the possession of fentanyl test strips, which were previously classified under Ohio law as “drug paraphernalia.” Under prior law, those found in possession of fentanyl test strips could face up to 30 days in jail. Fentanyl was involved in 81% of Ohio overdose deaths in 2020, according to the Ohio Department of Health. In those overdose deaths, fentanyl was commonly found in combination with other drugs. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have been on the rise in recent years. The drug has been found in 80% of cocaine-related overdose deaths, 79% of psychostimulant and methamphetamine-related overdose deaths. With the legalization of test strips, supporters of SB 288 hope to reduce these deaths. Free fentanyl test strips are now available through Columbus Public Health at several Columbus locations.

Criminal Record Sealing and Expungement Eased

For those who may have a minor misdemeanor or low-level felony record, SB 288 also eases criminal record sealing and expungement provisions in Ohio. The law broadens what prior charges, arrests, or convictions may be sealed from public access or destroyed. Under the law, non-violent offenders may apply to have criminal records sealed after one year for most misdemeanors and fourth- or fifth-degree felonies and after three years for third-degree felonies. Ohioans may also apply to have their records expunged (or cleared) from their criminal records after one year for misdemeanors and ten years for felonies. The law also declares that arrest or conviction for use or possession of marijuana paraphernalia no longer qualifies as a criminal record and does not need to be disclosed in response to an inquiry.

KJK is Here to Help

Students should remain informed and vigilant in protecting their rights, which begins by being aware of the basics of the law. KJK attorneys are available to advise and represent students who are involved in a variety of challenging circumstances, including criminal investigation and prosecution. For more information or to discuss further, please contact the attorneys in KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense practice group.