Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Former Assistant Prosecutor Suspended for Soliciting Officer Posing as Teen

A former Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor was indefinitely suspended from practicing law for soliciting sex online from an undercover officer posing as a 15-year-old girl.

The Supreme Court of Ohio today suspended Joseph M. Bell of Warren, who, while at work in the child support unit of the prosecutor’s office in July 2021, went online with his personal phone to visit profiles of sex workers. He contacted a person who identified herself as a teen but, in reality, was a police officer with the Mahoning Valley Human Trafficking Task Force.  Bell did not meet the “girl.”

Despite not going through with the meeting, the Supreme Court found that Bell’s position as a prosecutor and his misconduct warranted an indefinite suspension. Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that an assistant prosecutor is “invested with the public trust” and should be held to a higher standard than other attorneys.

“His job was to protect children; instead, while on the job, he negotiated a price to victimize one,” the chief justice wrote.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which brought the complaint against Bell to the Board of Professional Conduct, recommended the indefinite suspension. The board proposed a two-year suspension with six months credit for time served during an interim suspension.

Justices Patrick F. Fischer, Michael P. Donnelly, and Joseph T. Deters joined the chief justice’s opinion. First District Court of Appeals Judge Ginger S. Bock, sitting for Justice Jennifer Brunner, also joined the opinion.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Melody Stewart concurred with the majority’s findings but stated they would impose the board’s recommended suspension.

Lawyer Looks Up Sex Workers at Work
Bell was hired by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office in February 2020 and was assigned to the child support unit of the juvenile division. While at work, he visited a website that listed the profiles of sex workers.

Bell sent a text that morning to a number he obtained from the website. He believed he was texting a female sex worker, but it was an undercover officer. The officer asked Bell about his age and race, and the officer texted back that she was a lot younger than him and eventually said she was 15.

Bell responded, “You’re a little too young.” He also texted that “when someone that young is involved in this kinda thing I worry they are being forced against their will.” The officer responded, “Hell no.”

Bell eventually asked the officer how much it would cost to have sex. The officer said $80 and asked if Bell would agree to that. Bell texted, “Yeah.” When Bell inquired about a location, the officer texted “Canfield,” a city in Mahoning County, and Bell responded it would be after 6 p.m. before he could be there. The two continued to exchange texts after Bell left work, but he did not follow through with the meeting.

About five days later, the officer texted Bell again and sent a photo of a clothed female. Bell sent a photo of himself with his dog. He told the officer that since she was 15, she was too young for him to do anything “besides talk.” The conversation ended without any plans to meet.

Two weeks later, Bell was arrested at his office. The prosecutor fired Bell that day. He was indicted on one count of importuning, a fifth-degree felony. He pleaded guilty to an amended fifth-degree felony charge of unlawful use of a telecommunications device. He was sentenced to one year of community control. As part of his sentence, he was ordered to continue to participate in counseling and take all prescribed medications.

Board Considered Options for Sanction
Based on his conviction, the Supreme Court suspended Bell from practicing law on an interim basis in June 2022, and that suspension remained in effect until today. The disciplinary counsel filed a complaint against Bell in October 2022. Bell and the disciplinary counsel stipulated, and the board agreed, that Bell violated two professional conduct rules. Bell committed an illegal act that reflects adversely on his honesty and trustworthiness, and engaged in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law.

While the disciplinary counsel recommended that Bell receive an indefinite suspension, Bell argued for a suspension of a period of years. Bell testified at his disciplinary hearing that he was attending counseling and taking prescribed medication for anxiety and depression.

The board credited Bell for not following through with meeting the person he texted and for taking the stance that a 15-year-old was too young for any activity besides talking. The board recommended that the Court suspend Bell for two years with six months credit for time served under the interim suspension. The board also recommended that Bell could not apply for reinstatement until he completed all his community control requirements and that he continue to receive counseling and take all medications as prescribed.

Supreme Court Weighed Recommendations
The Court’s opinion stated that in prior cases, lawyers who attempted to engage in sexual activity with children received indefinite suspensions with no credit for time served. The opinion noted that an attorney suspended indefinitely is eligible for reinstatement after two years.

The Court stated it could not be sure if Bell’s activity was a “one-time, never-to-be-repeated mistake.” And while he did not follow through after negotiating a price for sex, when contacted again by the officer posing as an underage girl, Bell engaged in another text conversation. The opinion stated that despite being given the chance to reflect on his actions, he continued to interact with the “girl” when she contacted him.

“Given that he engaged in the solicitation of sex with a person whom he believed to have been underage while simultaneously representing the public on juvenile issues, his lapse in judgment was especially profound,” the Court stated.

In addition to the indefinite suspension, the Court adopted the board’s recommendation that Bell cannot apply for reinstatement until he completes his community control requirements and submits proof from a qualified healthcare professional that he continued counseling and is taking all prescribed medications. He was also ordered to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2023-0739. Disciplinary Counsel v. Bell, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-876.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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