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Case closed: Criminal records to remain open

Libby Mueller, Senior Staff Writer

Students charged with minor misdemeanors must now wait a year before having their case sealed.

An Ohio Supreme Court decision following the controversial "rape flier" scandal last year brought the issue into the spotlight. The case involved a flier created by a former MU student in the fall of 2012 proclaiming "The Top 10 Ways to Get Away With Rape."

The student pled guilty to disorderly conduct, a minor misdemeanor, and applied to have the court case sealed.

Judge Robert Lyons of the Butler County Area I Court granted the sealing and the case disappeared from the public view, according to court records.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, the primary newspaper in the Greater Cincinnati area, filed a lawsuit in November 2013 against Lyons, asserting the case was improperly sealed. The Enquirer, seeking information about the case, had earlier filed for a court mandate against Lyons to unseal the record.

In response to this previous charge, Lyons had unsealed the case and set aside the conviction, but resealed the case after the charges for the mandate were dropped.

In response to the most recent Enquirer lawsuit, Judge Lyons admitted to wrongly referencing an Ohio statute in the form used to immediately seal minor misdemeanor cases that resulted in convictions, like the rape flier case. However, Lyons' affidavit stated he still interpreted Ohio law to allow the immediate sealing of eligible offenders' minor misdemeanor cases upon application.

The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed with Lyons and ruled in June on the case that the courts must wait a year before granting a sealing of minor misdemeanor convictions and must hold a hearing before sealing minor misdemeanor cases that do not result in convictions.

Dennis Deters, attorney at Haughey, Deters & Niehaus, said he agreed with Lyons' interpretation of Ohio law.

"I also interpreted the Ohio statute in the same way Judge Lyons does, which is a case that is not a criminal conviction does not have to wait a full year to be sealed because minor misdemeanors are not criminal," Deters said. "You can't go to jail for them."

According to Deters, the decision presents some questions as to the treatment of minor misdemeanors versus criminal offenses. Deters said minor misdemeanors include such offenses as littering, speeding and disorderly conduct, which are less severe than criminal offenses.

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According to Deters, it makes sense for courts to be able to seal these minor offenses immediately. The Enquirer reported Lyons' Area I court sealed far more cases than Area II and Area III.

Deters addressed this issue, pointing out that Area I court sees all cases involving MU students.

"You've got a court [Area I] which services mostly young people in a position where their reputation is paramount," Deters said. "If they do get in trouble, it's more likely that their attorney and the people involved are going to want to seal the case. If you take the same court, for example Area III in West Chester, most of the people getting in trouble there are not young people starting their adult life so sealing might not be as important."

According to Deters, most offenses in Oxford are alcohol-related. Before the Supreme Court's decision on the Lyons case, charges on first offenses related to underage alcohol consumption were dismissed and a sealing was filed.

Now, defendants will have to wait a full year before applying for a sealing on such cases. The Supreme Court's case decision had little effect on Lyons himself.

Attorney Wayne Staton of Wayne Staton Co. agreed with Deters that Lyons acted within the bounds of the law.

"Ethically, he did nothing wrong," Staton said. "It was his interpretation of the statute. Each judge has their own interpretation."

Senior Rob Businger said he believed the ability to easily apply for an immediate sealing should not be a safety net for students.

"I can see where being able to seal a case right away would make sense if it's something small and where it could negatively impact a college student when they have a minor incident," Businger said. "But it kind of goes along with the idea of not posting pictures of partying or drinking on Facebook because that can affect your employment. If you make foolish decisions, there might be consequences. It's just a matter of responsibility."

For MU students, the Supreme Court's decision means the stain of a minor misdemeanor conviction will not be easily removed from public view. Unclean records will now remain to haunt the internship and job search process for students who previously may have been able to quietly seal them.