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Expungement Statute Held Constitutional

2003-0157. State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Winkler, 2004-Ohio-1581.
Hamilton App. No. C-010763, 151 Ohio App.3d 10, 2002-Ohio-7334. Judgment affirmed.
Moyer, C.J., Resnick, F.E. Sweeney, Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor and O'Donnell, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2004/2004-Ohio-1581.pdf

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(April 14, 2004) The Supreme Court of Ohio today unanimously affirmed the constitutionality of a state law that allows a judge to seal the record of a completed criminal trial under certain conditions.

Today's ruling affirmed a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeals in which that court denied an attempt by the Cincinnati Enquirer to unseal the trial record of a Cincinnati police officer who was found not guilty of negligent homicide and obstructing official business in an April 2001 street shooting. The shooting triggered civil disturbances and an ongoing controversy between Cincinnati police and city officials and the city's African-American community.

Judge Ralph E. Winkler presided at the officer's highly-publicized trial, which concluded on Sept. 26, 2001, with not guilty verdicts on all charges. Five weeks later, on Nov. 4, 2001, Winkler granted a petition by the officer to seal the trial record under a provision of state law that permits judges to take such action in cases where a defendant has no prior criminal record and is acquitted of all charges.

On Dec. 5, 2001, the Enquirer requested a transcript of the trial proceedings. That request was denied by Winkler and Hamilton County Clerk of Courts James Cissell on the basis that the record had been permanently sealed by Winkler's Nov. 4 court order and was therefore no longer a public record. The newspaper subsequently sought a writ of mandamus from the 1st District Court of Appeals ordering Winkler and Cissell to unseal the trial record. After sending the matter back to Winkler for a “balancing” hearing at which he reviewed and upheld his order of expungement, the appellate court voted 2-1 in December 2002 to accept Winkler's findings, deny the writ and leave the record sealed.

In today's decision, authored by Justice Francis E. Sweeney, the Supreme Court voted 7-0 to affirm the court of appeals ruling and reject arguments by the Enquirer that the expungement statute should be held unconstitutional because it infringes on the public's essential right of access to public records.

Writing for the court, Justice Sweeney acknowledged that wide public access to criminal proceedings and trial records serves several important principles of good government.

“First, a crime is a public wrong, and the interest of the community to observe the administration of justice in such an instance is compelling. Also, the general right of public access promotes respect for and an understanding of the legal system and thus enables the public to engage in an informed discussion of the governmental process,” wrote Justice Sweeney. He noted however that “(t)he right … is not absolute,” and cited several past decisions in which the Supreme Court has held that “it is a proper role of the General Assembly to balance competing private and public rights.”

In enacting the expungement statute, said Justice Sweeney, the legislature made a reasoned exception to the general rule of openness by allowing a defendant found not guilty of a criminal offense to apply to the court to have his or her trial record sealed. He noted that the law requires judges considering such requests to weigh the privacy rights of persons acquitted of alleged crimes “against the legitimate needs, if any, of the government to maintain those records,” and authorizes the sealing of a record only when the judge finds the former to outweigh the latter.

“The public's ability to attend a criminal trial is not hindered. The media's right to report on the court proceedings is not diminished. The statute does not restrict the media's right to publish truthful information relating to the criminal proceedings that have been sealed. In addition, the public had a right of access to any court record before, during and for a period of time after the criminal trial,” wrote Justice Sweeney. “The statute ensures fairness by balancing the competing concerns of the public's right to know and the defendant's right to keep certain information private. Therefore, on its face, (the statute) is constitutional.”

The decision went on to find that the expungement law also passed constitutional muster “as applied” to the facts in this specific case.

“In this case, there was a full public trial with widespread media attention. (The Enquirer's) reporters presumably attended the trial in its entirety. The court record remained open for more than five weeks after the trial had concluded,” Justice Sweeney noted. “ … appellant had ample opportunity to report on and to access and copy the trial record for a substantial period before its sealing. Once a case is sealed, however, the basis for public access to the official records does not exist.”

John C. Greiner, 513.629.2734, for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

David T. Stevenson, 513.946.3120, for Judge Ralph E. Winkler and then-Clerk of Courts James C. Cissell.