YOUNGSTOWN — Though a highly publicized 2010 Trumbull County case resulted in a man getting a 10-year prison sentence for his 15th drunken-driving conviction, the case of an Austintown man getting a fraction of that jail time has a significant difference, an assistant prosecutor says.
David T. Black, 61, of Austintown, was sentenced in January in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court to two years in prison and likely will serve only four months after being convicted of drunken driving for what Austintown police reported was his 17th time. He is in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Correctional Reception Center in Orient.
The Trumbull County case involved Keith Urso, then 49, of Warren, who prosecutors said committed his 15th OVI offense when he was spotted driving erratically, causing a concerned motorist to call 911. Urso parked his car in a tavern parking lot in Mecca Township and fell asleep; the car was running when police arrived.
Trumbull County prosecutors indicted Urso on felony drunken driving and specifications that alleged Urso had previously been convicted of OVI at least five times in the previous 20 years. He was convicted at trial and served a 10-year sentence — five years for the drunken driving offense and five years for the repeat offender specification.
In Black’s latest case, he pleaded guilty to felony drunken driving in November 2021 before Judge John Durkin of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. Assistant Prosecutor Joe Maxin and Black’s attorney, Tony Meranto, agreed to recommend to Durkin that Black get four months in prison, which is the mandatory minimum sentence for Black’s felony third-degree felony drunken driving conviction. The maximum sentence is three years in prison.
The drunken driving offense that led to Black’s sentence was June 10, 2021. Vindicator attempts to confirm an Austintown police report indicating this was Black’s 17th OVI offense were unsuccessful. The Vindicator did find evidence of 11 convictions; others may have occurred prior to digital or online records being used.
An Austintown police report states that Black drove a pickup truck into the back of a van June 10, 2021, and left the scene. In the van were four developmentally disabled adults who worked at the Masco Inc. workshop in Austintown. The 2:04 p.m. crash occurred at Silica and Ohltown roads in Austintown.
The van driver, Masco Inc. employee Joyce Fox, told Durkin at Black’s sentencing she suffered injuries that have prevented her from working since the accident. The police report, however, states that there were no apparent injuries for the driver or her passengers.
Mike Yacovone, assistant Mahoning County prosecutor, said one reason Black did not get a long prison sentence is that Black was not eligible for a repeat drunken driving specification, which added five years to Urso’s sentence.
Judge Andrew Logan of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court also sentenced Urso to five years on the felony OVI.
The drunken driving laws have changed in some ways since Urso’s 2011 sentencing, Yacovone said. Today, the felony drunken driving offense Urso received would qualify for three years in prison, not five, said Yacovone, who presents most of Mahoning County’s cases to grand juries.
Asked why Black was not indicted on the repeat drunken driving specification, Yacovone said Black did not qualify because he did not have five offenses in the five years prior to the crash in June. Most of his offenses occurred more than 20 years ago, Yacovone said.
“Black front-loaded his (drunken driving) convictions,” Yacovone said. “I think he just missed it. I would never pass up an opportunity to hit him with that specification. Unfortunately, he just didn’t qualify for that.”
Yacovone was not involved with the prosecution of Black’s case. Maxin told The Vindicator he was OK with recommending the minimum sentence to Durkin, noting that Black had “not been to prison.” Maxin said he did not know how many drunken driving convictions Black had, only that Black had been convicted of the felony version of OVI two times in the past.
The Austintown police report that detailed Black’s June 2021 arrest stated that Black was convicted of felony drunken driving in 2009 and 2018, and Black had been convicted of 14 other drunken driving offenses dating back to 1977.
The report stated that the list of Black’s offenses came from the law-enforcement-only Law Enforcement Automated Data System. Vindicator requests to the Austintown Police Department and county prosecutor’s office to see Black’s list of convictions on LEADS were denied.
Yacovone noted that victims of OVI crashes sometimes want their cases resolved as quickly as possible, in the event that the victim is considering a civil suit against the person charged in a crash. “A lot of times we do have the victims wanting to resolve them sooner rather than later,” Yacovone said.
Meanwhile, Black’s attorney, Meranto, said the sentence Durkin gave Black deviated from the plea agreement he and Maxin jointly recommended.
After Durkin talked with Black during the January sentencing hearing, Durkin sentenced Black to two years in prison but said he would honor the plea agreement in allowing Black to leave prison after serving four months.
“Imposing this sentence is going to enable me to, quite frankly, have a hammer over your head and to ensure you follow all treatment recommendations that you started through Travco,” the judge said. Travco is a substance abuse treatment facility in Youngstown. Part of Durkin’s order is for Black to undergo mandatory alcohol and drug treatment. Black gets 22 days of credit for time spent in the Mahoning County jail awaiting trial.
The judge also went above the minimum license suspension of three years, ordering Black’s license suspended for life. He ordered Black to pay the minimum fine of $1,350.
Durkin declined to comment for this story.
Meranto said he understands the public sometimes wanting to see long prison sentences for people who have had a large number of drunken driving offenses, but the reality is that most judges follow a chart that tells what the minimum required sentences are for various forms of the offense.
“Pretty much all of the prosecutors and judges agree to the minimum sanctions, unless there is something extraordinary — a guy hits a car, the person had to go to the hospital, a broken arm, a broken leg.” He said that when there is a serious injury, the charge is usually more than drunken driving. “It’s normally an aggravated vehicular assault,” Meranto said.
“You go look at the vast amount of DUIs everywhere, everybody gets the minimum on those, absent somebody hurting somebody seriously,” Meranto said. “It could be your first, your second, your third offense — in one of the county courts or municipal court, we regularly give everybody the minimum. It’s just a matter of course.”
Yacovone said he agrees that most drunken driving offenders get the minimum sentence, adding, “The guidelines set forth by the state are generally followed, given the complexity of the statute. We as prosecutors are typically OK with the minimum because they involve some form of incarceration, even at the lowest level.”
One example of the complexity of the statute is that various Ohio drunken driving statutes were contradictory on the sentence for the type of drunken driving both Black and Urso committed. Sometime around 2015, the courts determined the sentence should be three years, not five, Yacovone said.
Meranto said another factor in Black’s favor is that Black “has never seriously hurt anybody. He obviously is a drunk. He should never get behind the wheel and drive. But in the great scheme of what we do, criminal law, it’s not like taking out a gun and shooting at somebody.”
Black was convicted of a third-degree felony in this case because Black had already been convicted of the fourth-degree version of drunken driving in the past, Meranto said.
“We agreed to the minimum (prison sentence) up front looking at the case,” Meranto said of he and prosecutors. “All we did was go in and ask the judge to approve it. The judge did on his own modify it.” Meranto said he thinks the judge’s decision was “great,” saying, “Hopefully (Black) gets the help he needs, but none of us can guarantee, absent locking up a person and throwing away the key, that he is not going to reoffend.”
Urso qualified for the repeat drunken driving specification because of five or more offenses in the previous 20 years, but he also had one significant drunken driving offense in his history, according to Tribune Chronicle files.
Trumbull County prosecutors said Urso ran into a hay wagon full of people in Bristol Township in 1982, killing Nadine Foster, 25, of Warren and causing minor injuries to five other people on the hay wagon. Urso was convicted of vehicular homicide in that case and was sentenced to jail.
As for Black, a Vindicator review of public records showed Black having 11 OVI convictions dating back to 1977. Mahoning County Common Pleas Court documents indicate he had one drunken driving offense in Alliance in 1990, but online records do not provide enough information to confirm it. Most of his convictions appear to have originated in Mahoning County’s Area Court in Austintown, but he also had drunken driving cases in Niles Municipal Court, Alliance Municipal Court and Campbell Municipal Court.