Below is information on record sealings and their consequences in the state of Ohio. To see if you are eligible for one of our criminal record clearing services, take our FREE Eligibility Check.
As paragons of the law, judges are the last people that the public expects to make mistakes. However, in Butler County Ohio, where three different judges are all ruling differently on the same issue, it is beginning to look as if mistakes are becoming more and more common.
The issue at hand pertains to the sealing of records in Ohio. States keep a record of every single individual that resides within their jurisdiction. Any time a person is arrested or convicted of a crime, those charges appear on a person’s criminal history. This criminal history is public information and can be viewed by anyone. In addition, when applying for jobs, any charges listed on an individual’s criminal history must be reported. Even if a person escapes conviction and the charges were dropped, that individual must still disclose their arrest and this stain on their record can continue to have negative repercussions for their career and public image decades after the incident originally occurred.
The most damaging aspect, however is that the media also has access to any and all public records. As soon as criminal history records go public, the media can run a story on that individual and potentially broadcast that information nationwide. Transparency is important for public safety and it is important for employers to know whom they are hiring. However, the tradeoff is a huge loss of opportunity and a metaphorical scarlet letter, as every google search can reveal a defendant’s name, face, and charges all on the very first search result page. Thus, in the realm of record sealings, the stakes can be very high.
While common sense would dictate caution when handling these cases, the reality in Butler County Ohio is quite different. Judge Rob Lyons, a judge currently presiding over record sealings in Butler, is currently being sued for sealing thousands of records in his years on the bench using the wrong statue and using an incorrect timeline to do so.
In Ohio, misdemeanors are eligible for sealing one year after all sentences have been served, all probation has been completed, and all fines have been paid. Applications for felonies to be sealed can begin after three. In addition, in adult cases, a hearing must be held to weigh public interest against private interest in regards to releasing the records as public information in the interim between conviction and sealing. This would bar the public and the media from accessing criminal history records in that time.
Since the stigma of having a criminal record is so damaging, there are times when the records are kept private by the state in order to protect the individual. This protection is granted automatically in juvenile cases in Ohio. This protection does not usually extend to adults. Judge Rob Lyons, however, was mistakenly giving adults that protection too. To put this in perspective, Judge Lyons has been on the bench for 14 years and has thus far sealed thousands of records.
This issue came to light when a former Miami University student’s record was sealed after he posted a sign at the university entitled “How to Get Away with Rape.” The student’s records were never released to the public and his record was eventually sealed. While it is true that most cases that are brought before a judge to be sealed are relatively minor transgressions such as underage drinking in other counties, even these incidents usually require the applicant to perform a diversionary program. This usually consists of a class along with community service hours. In addition, some levels of theft and domestic violence fall under the category of misdemeanor. Judge Rob Lyons not only sealed records early without the requirement of such a program, he sealed three or four times the number of records compared to those of other counties. Even if the sealing of these minor transgressions such as underage drinking can be overlooked, weighing in favor of private interest in the case of a student who was convicted of publicly posting a flier encouraging rape at a major university is not so easy to do. No record of this student’s transgression kept, and their name was also kept a secret. In addition, with all of the records being sealed already, there is no way of knowing how many of the charges were for more serious misdemeanors. Judge Lyons’ decision is stirring because it not only shows unequal treatment, but it also puts the public at risk.
On the other side of the coin is Judge Kevin McDonough, who has held hearings on sealing requests but has abstained from sealing any criminal history records. While Judge Lyons’ case is an example of a blow to public interest, Judge McDonough’s actions are a blow to individual’s rights. The ability to seal a record is an individual protection that effectively allows for a second chance. When a judge refuses to seal any records, it effectively prevents individuals from moving past their prior conviction and undermines the system. The state included the ability to seal records in their code so as to offer individuals that protection. A judge’s sole decision to deny that option to individuals is going against the clear intent of the law. The judges did not have the power to perform these duties, and they did so at their own discretion. Their decisions have affected thousands of individuals in the interim. While Judge Lyons is currently being sued for his actions with the potential for a large majority of these cases to be reopened and reviewed, the damage has already been done.
While the state is finally trying to restore the balance of power and reopen the cases that have been sealed by Judge Lyons, the public is left with many questions. Aside from presiding in Butler county, these judges were also hired as part time judges. While misinterpretations of the law are not limited to part-timer judges, misinterpretation can have a major effect on society. Had there been a greater accountability on the part of the judges, this likely could have been avoided. If judges interpret the law and still make mistakes, who else is there to turn to? Luckily, the American justice system has an answer to this and slowly, the wheels are turning and the public is becoming more aware of these issues. However, the issue still stands. Time will tell how the lawsuit against Judge Lyons will end, and even if those hundreds of records in question still remain sealed, the issue of private interest versus public interest is still a major concern. The decision is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio.