When an offender is convicted of a charge while other charges in the same indictment are dismissed, the offender cannot request to seal the records of the dismissed charges until all the records in the case are eligible to be sealed, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled recently.

The Supreme Court reversed an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision to allow the sealing of dismissed charges against a man identified as “G.K.,” who had been accused of raping a relative. Because he was not eligible to have his conviction for obstructing justice sealed, the Court concluded that the dismissed charges also could not be sealed. The ruling upheld a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court decision to deny sealing G.K.’s records.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated the plain language of Ohio statutes governing the sealing of records does not permit sealing dismissed charges until all the records in a criminal case are eligible to be sealed.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Fourth District Court of Appeals Judge Michael D. Hess, sitting for Justice Michael P. Donnelly, also joined the opinion.

Justices Melody Stewart and Jennifer Brunner concurred in judgment only.

Chief Justice O’Connor also issued a concurring opinion to highlight the barrier that the nonconviction-sealing statute imposes on a defendant such as G.K., who was falsely charged with several felony offenses that were ultimately dismissed.

In 2009, G.K. and his cousin were indicted for the rape of his cousin’s cognitively impaired adult daughter. The daughter accused her father of repeatedly raping her and initially stated G.K. also raped her.

Based on the allegations, G.K. was charged with three counts of rape, one count of gross sexual imposition and one count of kidnapping. G.K. also allegedly helped his cousin hide a computer from police, allegedly to conceal evidence of an attempted rape. The state charged G.K. with obstructing justice and tampering with evidence.

G.K.’s cousin pleaded guilty to multiple rape and kidnapping counts and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. According to G.K.’s attorney, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to a plea deal with G.K. after its investigation revealed G.K. had not assaulted the woman.

G.K. pleaded guilty to obstructing justice, and all other charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to community control.

Five years later, G.K applied to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to have the record of the dismissed charges sealed. At a hearing on the application, G.K. conceded he was not eligible to have the obstructing-justice conviction sealed because of his prior criminal record. He maintained that state law permitted the sealing of his records pertaining to the dismissed charges.

The prosecutor’s office objected to the sealing, stating the law for sealing dismissed charges only applies when the offender is acquitted or the entire indictment was dismissed. Because G.K. was convicted of one charge, the law did not permit sealing the dismissed charges, the prosecutor maintained.

The trial court denied the application and G.K. appealed to the Eighth District. In a split decision, the Eighth District reversed the trial court’s decision. The prosecutor appealed the Eighth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Justice DeWine explained the General Assembly has amended portions of the state laws governing the sealing of criminal records. The Court applied the law in effect when G.K. applied in 2014 to have the records sealed.

The Court analyzed three record-sealing laws relevant to G.K.’s case. At the time, R.C. 2953.32 allowed the record of a conviction to be sealed under certain circumstances. Under this “conviction-sealing statute,” an offender may qualify as an “eligible offender” to have a conviction sealed based on the number and type of prior convictions.

The law only allows the records of certain types of crimes to be sealed. A trial court must consider a list of factors before allowing an eligible offender’s record to be sealed. Once sealed, the “proceedings in the case shall be considered not to have occurred,” the opinion explained.

Another law, R.C. 2953.52 allows for sealing records of acquittals and dismissed charges. The “nonconviction-sealing statute” requires a trial court to determine whether the person was found “not guilty in the case” or whether the indictment in the case was dismissed.

A third law pertains to cases where a person is indicted on multiple counts. R.C. 2953.61 applies when a person is charged with two or more offenses in connection with the same act and at least one charge has a final disposition that differs from the other charges. The “multicount-sealing” law states a person cannot apply for sealing the records until the person is eligible to have “all of the records in all of the cases pertaining to those charges sealed.”

G.K. argued the nonconviction-sealing law allowed for the dismissed charges to be sealed. The Court wrote that law applies when an entire indictment is dismissed, not when individual counts within the indictment are dismissed. G.K. was convicted of one of the charges in the indictment.

“The records of the dismissed counts in G.K.’s indictment therefore cannot be sealed under the nonconviction-sealing statute. It’s that simple,” the Court stated.

Under the law in effect at the time G.K. filed his application, he was not eligible to have his obstructing justice conviction sealed, the opinion stated. If he becomes eligible, he may then apply to have the records in his case — both the conviction and the dismissed charges — sealed, the Court concluded.

Because G.K. was convicted of a single count, Chief Justice O’Connor noted the practical result for G.K. is that the presence of the dismissed charges on his criminal record may disqualify him from job opportunities, educational opportunities and stable housing.

The concurrence noted the General Assembly enacted the nonconviction-sealing statute to assist defendants with a pathway for reentry to society. The chief justice stated she is not convinced lawmakers “intended to impose the high price that G.K. must pay in the form of collateral consequences.” She wrote that just as it is up to the legislature to make policy judgments with regard to sealing conviction records, it is also within its purview to consider removing the barrier to sealing records of dismissed charges.