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Conviction affirmed for man who scrapped stolen cars

Special to the Legal News

Published: September 3, 2013

Burton Pierce of Stark County lost his appeal Monday after he was convicted of eight counts of receiving stolen property and one count of arson.

The 5th District Court of Appeals issued an opinion authored by Judge Craig Baldwin affirming the judgment of the Stark County Court of Common Pleas sentencing Pierce to serve a two-year prison sentence.

Pierce was indicted on July 23, 2012 on nine counts of receiving stolen property, felonies of the fourth degree, and arson, also a fourth-degree felony.

At his arraignment on Aug. 17, 2012, Pierce entered a plea of not guilty to the charges and the matter proceeded to trial.

Prior to the commencement of the court proceedings, Pierce’s defense counsel stipulated to the fact that nine vehicles were stolen and the dates on which they were stolen.

According to case summary provided by the appellate court, Det. Ryan Hostetler of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office was near Pierce’s business on Feb. 17, 2012.

Hostetler testified at trial that he saw a white Chevy Caprice backed up to the fence on Pierce’s property.

He ran the license plate number through the state database and the car came back as stolen.

After calling for backup, Hostetler went to Pierce’s business to speak with him.

He informed Pierce that the police had received a tip that there were stolen vehicles in the back of his property and parts were being removed for scrap.

Pierce denied that there were any stolen cars on his property and he gave the detective permission to search the premises.

A total of nine stolen cars were discovered in the back of Pierce’s business; all of them were broken up and some had the motors pulled out.

The Detective testified that about 60 percent of the vehicles had the steering columns broken, which indicated they were stolen, and all of the cars were GMC vehicles.

Police recovered a 1986 Pontiac, a 1989 Chevy G20 van, another Chevy van, a 1989 Oldsmobile, a 1995 Chevy Bonneville, a 1989 Buick LeSabre, a Chevy Suburban and a car trailer.

The owners of eight of the vehicles testified at trial.

All of them stated the steering column was broken when they recovered their vehicles from the impound lot and many noted that the windows and mirrors were broken.

When Hostetler confronted him, Pierce told him that he rented out the back of his business to Dwight Griffin.

However, when Hostetler questioned the employees working in the back portion of the property, all of them claimed to be employees of Pierce and none said they were employed by the alleged renter.

Hostetler testified at trial that the white Chevy Caprice was being driven by Pierce’s girlfriend, Chrystal.

He also said Pierce never showed him any lease agreement to prove that he rented out his back lot.

At the conclusion of evidence, the trial court dismissed one of the counts of receiving stolen property because the owner of that car was unable to testify.

Pierce was found guilty of the eight remaining charges and he entered a plea of guilty to the arson charge.

Upon a direct appeal to the 5th District, Pierce presented a single assignment of error in which he argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

He claimed his attorney failed to call a witness, produce the lease agreement and stipulated to a charge of receiving stolen property without evidence of a theft.

The appellate panel, however, disagreed.

“In determining whether counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, judicial scrutiny of counsel’s performance must be highly deferential,” wrote Judge Baldwin.

“Because of the difficulties inherent in determining whether effective assistance of counsel was rendered in any given case, a strong presumption exits that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable, professional assistance.”

Judge Baldwin stated that, in order to warrant a reversal of his convictions, Pierce was required to show that he was prejudiced by his counsel’s ineffectiveness and that if it weren’t for his counsel’s unprofessional conduct, the results of the proceedings would have been different.

The court of appeals determined Pierce was unable to demonstrate that a lease agreement even existed.

“He cannot, therefore, demonstrate that his counsel was ineffective in failing to produce the same,” wrote Judge Baldwin.

Pierce further argued that his attorney should have called his girlfriend to testify as to the existence of the lease agreement.

But according to Judge Baldwin, “Courts have traditionally been reluctant to find ineffective assistance of counsel in those cases where an attorney fails to call a particular witness.”

The appeals court found that Pierce failed to demonstrate there was a reasonable probability that, had his trial counsel subpoenaed Chrystal, the result of the case would have been different.

“Accordingly, the judgment of the Start County Court of Common Pleas is affirmed,” concluded Judge Baldwin.

Judges Sheila Farmer and John Wise concurred.

The case is cited State v. Pierce, 2013-Ohio-3593.

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