We live in a society of laws, why do you think I took you to see all those Police Academy movies?  For fun?  Well I didn’t hear anybody laughing.

            — Homer Simpson

The Leadership of the Ohio State Highway Patrol is trying to take advantage of the holidays to – once again – expand its jurisdiction.

We recently learned that Troopers will move beyond their role to investigate traffic accidents caused by alcohol or drugs, and now will “look for possible criminal violations stemming from the source of drugs or alcohol that led to the impairment.” (Gongwer)

This sounds like a good thing, right?  After all, who doesn’t want criminals whose conduct led to injuries or deaths to be brought to justice?  Certainly, not us!

The biggest problem is this little old thing called the law.

Under Ohio law, the state highway patrol has very limited jurisdiction.  The Highway Patrol is authorized to “enforce the laws of the state relating to the titling, registration, and licensing of motor vehicles; enforce on all roads and highways, . . . the laws relating to the operation and use of vehicles on the highways. . . .”  The Highway Patrol also is authorized to: “investigate and report all motor vehicle accidents on all roads and highways outside of municipal corporations.”

The ability of the Highway Patrol to enforce the criminal laws is limited to “state properties and state institutions, owned or leased by the state.”  (There are some exceptions for riot and insurrection and, more recently, for private prisons – none of which are applicable.)

Nothing in Ohio law gives the Highway Patrol jurisdiction over crimes occurring elsewhere in Ohio that possibly contributed to traffic accidents.  No court has ever held that the Highway Patrol can expand is jurisdiction in this manner. The silliness of the contrary interpretation of Ohio law seemingly pushed by the Kasich Administration is easy to see: every sale of drugs, for example, could lead to an impaired driver; under this reasoning, the Highway Patrol can now investigate every drug trafficking allegation in Ohio.

The irony of the leadership of a law enforcement organization having such a disregard for the law should be enough to stop this effort – no matter how well intended.

There are real-world implications, too.

If a court finds that a Trooper is acting outside his or her jurisdiction, the Trooper can face civil liability.  In general, law enforcement officers are entitled to something called “qualified immunity” for good faith actions taken in the course of their duties. In plain English, this means that it is difficult to sue officers who are just doing their jobs.  However – and this is a big however – Troopers are only entitled to qualified immunity if they are acting within the scope of their authority.  If the officers are outside of their jurisdiction, they could be held personally liable.

Joseph noted this problem with prior efforts of the Highway Patrol to expand its jurisdiction beyond the statutory limits.  Our view is that the leadership of the Highway Patrol shouldn’t be asking rank-and-file Troopers to risk personal liability just so the Highway Patrol can build a bigger empire.  Since the beginning of the Kasich administration, we have seen a concerted effort by the Highway Patrol to move beyond its core mission of enforcing Ohio’s traffic laws.  For example:

If you care about local control, you should care about this issue.  The Highway Patrol is not a state police organization, and is not intended to be.  Ohio, unlike a lot of other states, does not have state police.  Instead, law enforcement is done by local police, sheriffs, and prosecutors.  Like a lot of other things in Ohio government, there is a preference for local control that is accountable to voters.

In addition, there are legitimate questions about whether the Highway Patrol is qualified to conduct these types of investigations.  Highway Patrol Troopers are experts in enforcing traffic laws.  They are great at that. But prior efforts to expand into more criminal investigations have been less successful.  For example, earlier this year newspapers reported that criminals went free because the Highway Patrol was unprepared to handle and analyze evidence.

There are some good reasons that Ohio should consider establishing a state police organization that can be trained and equipped to handle major criminal investigations.  That discussion should be had in the open, with votes and hearings in the Legislature.  Instead, the Kasich Administration is trying to accomplish this by stealth.  That is wrong and dangerous.