Records May Be Unsealed Only for Exceptions Spelled Out in State Law
In a second decision today about sealing criminal records, the Ohio Supreme Court held that courts may unseal an acquitted defendant’s record only for reasons defined by statute.
When a statute establishes a mandatory obligation and provides specific exceptions, a court cannot create additional exceptions, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote for the court. In this case, the trial court was statutorily prohibited from unsealing the records of Terrell Vanzandt for the state’s use in a subsequent, related prosecution, she concluded.
The five-justice majority reversed the First District Court of Appeals’ judgment and instructed the trial court to set aside the decision unsealing Vanzandt’s prior record.
In 2012, a jury acquitted Vanzandt of drug trafficking charges. He asked the trial court to seal the record, and it granted his request on October 4, 2012. Three days later, the state charged him with retaliating against the informant in the first case. The state then requested access to the sealed drug-trafficking case record as evidence for the retaliation matter. The court approved the state’s access to the record.
Vanzandt appealed, and the First District affirmed the trial court’s decision, based largely on the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Pepper Pike v. Doe (1981). The appellate court ruled that from a court’s “extrastatutory authority” to seal records, as laid out in Pepper Pike, logically flows a court’s discretion to also unseal records.
Vanzandt asked the Supreme Court to review the issue.
The Court’s Analysis
R.C. 2953.52 permits people who have been found not guilty of an offense or who have had charges dismissed to apply to have their case records sealed. After a court seals records pursuant to that statute, R.C. 2953.53(D) then prohibits access to those records, except for four limited purposes, the chief justice wrote. The exceptions are allowed for the person who is the subject of the records for any reason, for a law enforcement officer defending a related civil action, and for a prosecuting attorney deciding the person’s eligibility for two specific diversion programs.
The statute is unambiguous, and the state’s motion seeking to unseal the records should have been denied, Chief Justice O’Connor reasoned. Nor does Pepper Pike apply here, she added.
She noted that when Pepper Pike was decided in 1981, the statutes for sealing records in criminal cases resulting in dismissal or acquittal did not exist.
“Because our analysis in Pepper Pike proceeded in the context of legislative silence, we were able to consider the significant public-policy interests at play and found a place for judicial discretion,” she explained. “But here we are not faced with legislative silence; we are faced with an express legislative prohibition. There is no ambiguity. Accordingly, Pepper Pike is not controlling.”
“R.C. 2953.53(D) expressly prohibits access to sealed records for purposes other than those specifically listed in the statute’s enumerated exceptions, and those exceptions should not have been expanded through the exercise of judicial discretion in this case,” she wrote.
While the state’s request to access the records is understandable, “[w]e must heed the plain language of this unambiguous statute, and any claim of injustice or inequity must be resolved through the legislative process rather than judicial redress,” she concluded.
The majority opinion was joined by Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented in a written opinion. Justice Terrence O’Donnell would have dismissed the appeal as improvidently allowed.
The court’s opinions in this case and in Radcliff, the other decision released today, are “so lacking in justice that they defy credulity,” Justice Pfeifer wrote.
“In State v. Radcliff, the court disallows the sealing of records of criminal convictions that are 30 years old and for which the offender has been pardoned by a governor of Ohio,” he noted. “In this case, the court concludes that records of criminal cases less than three years old must remain sealed; indeed, it holds that their existence can’t even be recognized for the limited purpose of showing that there had been a previous trial.”
All Ohio courts have some authority to act in the absence of a statute and have the power to administer justice, he reasoned.
Pepper Pike held that courts have authority to seal records in unusual and exceptional instances. “In my opinion, a court that has the inherent power to seal records in unusual and exceptional cases has the inherent power to unseal them in unusual and exceptional cases,” he wrote.
In this “unusual” case, the record should have been unsealed for the limited purpose of obtaining evidence that a person had been a witness in an earlier case, he concluded.
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