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Court upholds refusal to unseal records in case that led to riots

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Court upholds refusal to unseal records in case that led to riots

  • The Court of Appeals was not convinced that judge ‘acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or unconscionably’ in sealing court records involving fatal shooting of man by a Cincinnati police officer.

Jan. 13, 2003 — Court records will remain sealed in the high-profile case of Stephen Roach, a former Cincinnati police officer acquitted of criminal charges for the shooting death of a 19-year-old, unarmed African American male, Timothy Thomas, that led to city riots in April 2001.

The Dec. 31, 2002 decision by the Ohio Court of Appeals ended The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s yearlong battle to obtain access to the court records.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ralph E. Winkler sealed the court records after Roach applied for expungement of his record. Under the Ohio expungement statute, before a court can seal court records, it must “weigh the interests of the person in having the official records pertaining to the case sealed against the legitimate needs, if any, of the government to maintain those records.”

When the Enquirer appealed the sealing order, the appellate court ordered Winkler to make specific findings to justify his order in compliance with the statute.

“Specifically, Judge Winkler should identify Roach’s privacy interests and consider them in the context of the publicity that surrounded the trial, the public importance of the trial, and the public’s presumptive right of access to inspect the trial records,” the appellate court ruled in Sept. 2002.

After Winkler returned to the appellate court with specific findings that the police officer’s privacy rights outweighed the public’s right of access, the appellate court held that it could not overrule Winkler’s sealing order “simply because we may disagree with its judgment.”

“In order to compel disclosure, we must, at the very least be convinced that the trial court acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or unconscionably,” the appellate court explained in its opinion.

“Judge Winkler’s findings cannot be said to amount to an abuse of discretion.”

(State ex. rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Winkler: Media counsel: John C. Greiner and Ann K. Schooley, Graydon, Head & Ritchey, LLP, Cincinnati, Ohio) ST

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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