Judge’s practice of sealing records doesn’t sit too well
Sheila McLaughlin reports:
The weekly cattle call at Butler County Area III Court swells with a mixed bag of people charged with minor crimes and traffic violations.
They spend hours waiting for their cases to be called. Many plead guilty, get probation and make a stop at the clerk’s window to pay their fines. Most go on their way with a criminal record that anyone can see.
This is not Butler County Area I Court in Oxford, a college town 24 miles away where a different judge says he routinely seals misdemeanor criminal convictions for students at Miami University in a move that keeps their names and the details of their crimes secret.
The Enquirer reported Sunday that Area I Judge Rob Lyons, a Miami University grad, has sealed an average of 589 cases a year since 2008 in the county’s lowest-volume court – far more than those sealed in courts in West Chester or Hamilton.
“When I read (state law), I don’t see a Miami college student exception,” said Jack Grove, an attorney and chairman of the local public defender commission. “I understand there are some unique circumstances in a college town, but some would also say that is out of control.”
Grove, an Oxford Township resident who practices civil law, served as a prosecutor in Area I Court during the 1970s after graduating from law school. Cases weren’t routinely sealed back then, he said.
“I think this has more to do with the judge on the case than it does the geographic location,” Grove said. “What happens in the court is public. It’s part of government and it’s not meant to be secret.”
Sealing cases, Grove said, undermines what criminal laws are supposed to accomplish – a sentence that’s aimed at discouraging future crimes and punishing and rehabilitating the offender.
Some defendants in West Chester this week expressed outrage over Lyons’ practice.
Benjamin Ruwan, 27, is an unemployed and disabled Army veteran who said he served four tours in Iraq. He said he was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ruwan was in court on a charge of telephone harassment involving the mother of his 2-year-old son. His criminal case was continued until late March.
He said treatment should be uniform from one court to the next.
“You’ve got people down here, not in Oxford, not around a college town, who have to jump through hoops and pay outrageous fines,” Ruwan said. “This is the state of Ohio. It should be equal across the board.”
Ryan Green, 23, was in court this week to finish up his case on misdemeanor attempted assault. The Monroe resident, who works for an industrial pipe cleaning company, said he spent $6,000 for a lawyer and wound up paying a $500 fine. He pleaded the case down from a felony that could have sent him to prison for 18 months.
“How is he getting away with that?” Green asked about Lyons’ sealing of cases. “If you go to the college he went to, he’s giving breaks?”
But Terea Brown, 30, of Hamilton, doesn’t think Lyons’ practice is so bad.
She was in court on a speeding ticket for driving 14 mph over the speed limit on her way home from work as a home health aide.
“I might end up in school one day and need this same treatment. Why be against something that could be good? Or it could be your child in the future,” Brown said.
Lyons’ average of sealing nearly 600 cases a year is eight times the average number of cases sealed annually during the same five-year time frame in the West Chester court. Lyons’ sealings are 12 times more than the average number of cases sealed each year in Butler County Area II Court in Hamilton, according to statistics provided by court officials.
The Enquirer has sued Lyons twice since November asking the Ohio Supreme Court to force him to open court records that he admitted were improperly sealed.
The Enquirer’s case was sparked by the posting of a flier posted in a Miami University co-ed dorm bathroom that suggested how to get away with raping female students. Lyons immediately sealed records after the student pleaded guilty to a minor misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. He used a form that cited a section of law applicable only when a person is not convicted of a crime. In a deposition, he said he had been improperly using the preprinted form for the 14 years he has been on the bench. The former student was allowed to withdraw his plea and Lyons sealed the case again when the Butler County prosecutor declined to pursue the case further.
It’s impossible to tell how many of Lyons’ cases were sealed properly unless the records are opened. Under Ohio law, all misdemeanor convictions require a yearlong wait before they can be sealed. Following the wait, a judge can seal a case but must hold a hearing that weighs an offender’s reason for hiding the case against the public interest.
In depositions on The Enquirer’s first lawsuit, over the flier case, Lyons testified that he sealed minor misdemeanor cases immediately and in some cases without the required hearing because he thought he had discretion to do so.
The second lawsuit seeks to have five years of cases opened based on Lyons’ testimony in the deposition.
Roger Knoll, who appeared in court in West Chester this week, said no one offered to seal his case when he was convicted of loss of physical control of his car. He had a public defender who reached plea agreement reducing the charge from driving drunk.
The 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran from West Chester compared the sealings to military practices involving criminal cases.
“I’ve never had anything sealed on me. (The Marine Corps) would drop the charge to lesser. They never just sealed it off like that,” Knoll said. “And I thought I was getting special treatment in the military. That’s ridiculous.”
CASE SEALINGS IN BUTLER COUNTY AREA COURTS
Area I Court (Oxford) Area II Court (Hamilton) Area III Court (West Chester)
2008 567 41 51
2009 634 51 65
2010 577 39 105
2011 550 54 75
2012 617 48 54
Source: Butler County Area Courts