The Ohio House last week unanimously passed a bill that will change the way arsonists are prosecuted for burning down vacant structures. House Bill 185, inspired by Bethel Township Fire Chief Jacob King and brought to life by State Representative Kyle Koehler, now moves on to the Senate for approval, and Koehler said he will be persistent in seeing that the bill is kept at the forefront of the Senate’s attention.

In Ohio, those charged with arson of an unoccupied building sometimes go free, as it is required that the prosecution prove that the owner of the structure did not give the arsonist permission to torch their building. Koehler said those property owners, especially those who live out-of-state, can be difficult for prosecutors to track down and obtain their statement that they did not give the arsonist permission to burn the buildings. He said that those who have stopped making their payments to the bank or those who “are in trouble with the city” for not mowing grass or abiding code enforcements are even harder to locate.

“If you can’t find the owner, you get off because of a loophole,” Koehler explained.

House Bill 185 will simplify the process of charging those suspected of arson in an unoccupied structure, as it removes the requirement of prosecutors proving that the owner did not consent to the arson of their property. The bill allows for the defendant to present proof of the owner’s consent during proceedings, instead of forcing the prosecutor to track them down.

Koehler said that this bill flips the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” in that it incorporates the use of Affirmative Defense. He said if an arsonist claims to have the property owner’s permission to burn down a structure, that they in turn admit their guilt in the crime, and must then essentially prove their innocence by showing the owner’s consent.

The current loophole in the law regarding arson in unoccupied structures was brought to Koehler’s attention at an end-of-year Joint Government Meeting in 2014, when Bethel Township Fire Chief Jacob King mentioned the unnecessary hours and funds that went into prosecuting these cases. Koehler said he was not familiar with this issue, and noted that he takes comments from his constituents seriously, and went to work right away seeing what could be done to close the loophole in prosecuting arsonists for burning down vacant structures.

“When a constituent comes to me with an issue—knowing that he’s a Chief not only at Bethel Township but Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as well—I get to work on seeing what we can do,” Koehler said.

Koehler said he will be persistent in “pushing” the bill through the Senate, as to not let it become forgotten amid all the other proposed bills and laws. He said the bill passed unanimously in the State House by a vote of 95 to zero, and will now move on to the Senate for consideration. He said he believes they have the support of Senators Bill Beagle and Peggy Lehner and hopes that they will push for the bill’s approval as well.

Bethel Township Trustee Don Minton said he was incredibly proud of King for bringing the issue to Koehler’s attention, emphasizing King’s devoted attention to making improvements in areas that require them.

“I’m very proud of Jacob,” said Minton. “He’s very energetic, and he’s always looking for the best way to help the community out--which is an asset.”

“We’re very lucky to have him as our Fire Chief.”

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