Butler County investigation: Oxford leads the way
Sheila McLaughlin reports:
They line up every Thursday in Area I Court in Oxford, fresh-faced and chatty. Shoulders sag under the weight of backpacks stuffed with laptops, books and classwork from Miami University. More than likely, they’ve been caught drinking underage or were charged over the previous weekend with petty crimes such as disorderly conduct.
By the time they appear before Judge Rob Lyons on a date down the road, if a long-running trend holds true, 40 percent of them will walk out with a criminal record that’s sealed from public sight.
Judges in other small Ohio college towns seal criminal records, too, though not to the extent of Lyons, who presides over the smallest court among them. Lyons, The Enquirer reported last month, sealed 2,945 misdemeanor cases in the past five years.
An Enquirer analysis of court records in several Ohio college towns shows an unusually high number of cases being sealed compared with courts in large metro areas where a college is just one thread in the overall fabric of the community.
Christo Lassiter, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, questions whether students in towns dominated by a college are getting preferential treatment or are they just working the system.
“To some extent, Miami students have a pipeline. You find out what works and you do it. They’ve figured it out,” Lassiter said. “It could be just the pipeline, or it could be the fact that these people do have the money to go to a lawyer.”
In Bowling Green Municipal Court, one in six misdemeanor cases is sealed. At municipal court in Athens County – the home of Ohio University – a third of the cases are kept secret. In the Portage County Municipal Court, where Kent State University sits, 22 percent of the misdemeanor cases were sealed last year.
By comparison, larger metro area courts seal a much smaller proportion of misdemeanor cases. For instance, the court that handles cases involving University of Dayton students sealed 3.5 percent in 2012.
“We certainly don’t single (college students) out for sure in our court,” said Ann Murray, administrator in Dayton Municipal Court.
Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus sealed 9 percent of the cases completed in 2012, according to data provided by the court.
“There may be some circumstances where the court might order a case to be sealed. But not because of the fact that a person just happens to be a student is it an automated process,” said Obie Lucas, chief deputy clerk of Franklin County Municipal Court.
Lyons’ practice of sealing cases prompted two lawsuits from The Enquirer since November alleging he improperly sealed misdemeanor records. The cases are pending before the Supreme Court of Ohio.
The first involves the handling of the case of a Miami freshman who posted a flier at the co-ed McBride Hall instructing how to get away with raping female students. The second complaint asks the Supreme Court to order Lyons to open five years of sealed cases because Lyons admitted using a form citing the wrong statute.
Lyons, on the bench for 14 years, said in a sworn deposition that he routinely seals cases for Miami students: “You’ve got kids with indiscretions that want their records sealed before they start applying for graduate school or go to the job market.”
Doug Cubberley, administrator at Bowling Green Municipal Court, said most sealed cases are dismissals following completion of an alcohol diversion program designed for underage drinkers. If the first-time offender completes the program of alcohol education, six hours of community service and pays a $185 fee, the charge is dismissed and a student has an opportunity to have the case sealed.
“We’ve always said we want people to come to the university and leave town with a degree and not a record,” Cubberley said. “This court does not automatically say, ‘College student. Therefore you should get something sealed.’ We still require them to go through the statutory process,” which requires a hearing and arguments before a judge.
Butler County Area I Court does not have a diversion program. A program established in 2009 is run by Oxford police because area courts, run by part-time judges, didn’t have time, said John Buchholz, a retired Oxford police officer who runs the program.
Called the Alcohol Education Program, it allows first-time offenders an opportunity for dismissal of nine alcohol-related city violations – from disorderly conduct and public intoxication to underage drinking and having an open container of alcohol. Offenders must apply to the city, pay $475 and court costs, complete an alcohol class and perform an average of 20 hours of community service.
Last year, 260 offenders completed diversion in Oxford, compared with 200 in 2011 and 400 in 2010, Buchholz said. That’s far fewer cases than Lyons seals, and it’s impossible to tell what crimes are involved in sealed cases. Misdemeanors include some levels of theft and domestic violence.
In Athens, Ohio University students charged with alcohol offenses can have their case dismissed through diversion. The program includes 12 hours of community service, a three-hour alcohol class, reading a book, 90 days’ good behavior and $319 in fees.
“We have so many different fests going on, that it makes a difference especially with the underage drinkers,” Clerk of Courts Pam Walton said of case sealings in Athens. In 2012, the court there sealed 1,020 cases, most involving the diversion program.
The practice has critics. “It allows the kids to pay up money and have the case sidetracked,” said Jack Grove, chairman of the Butler County Public Defender Commission and former prosecutor. “Really, it diminishes the criminality of some of the behavior and to them, it’s like pay to play.”