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The Ohio Supreme Court overturns itself to allow wrongfully convicted defendants access to public records to challenge their convictions without having to rely on bureaucratic grace or mistake.

Yesterday, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned its own precedent and issued a significant ruling for Ohioans seeking to challenge their convictions, and for Ohio public-records law generally. In State ex rel. Caster v. City of Columbus, et al., Slip Op. No. 2016-Ohio-8394, the Court ruled that Ohio's public-records exception for "specific investigatory work product" ends when the trial of the underlying criminal case concludes. In other words, once a criminal trial is over, state and local law-enforcement agencies can no longer withhold documents related to that criminal case on the ground that the documents contain information that law-enforcement officials have assembled in connection with a probable or pending criminal proceeding. This means that wrongfully convicted criminal defendants will now have access to information that may be critical in exonerating them, before their time for post-conviction challenge has completely run out.

In Caster, an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) sought records to determine whether a potential client, Adam Saleh, was wrongly convicted. OIP could not enter into an attorney-client relationship with Saleh unless it could determine whether there was evidence of such wrongful conviction. Despite the fact that Saleh's direct appeals ended nearly four years before OIP sent its public-records request to the Columbus police department (DOP), however, DOP made a blanket rejection of the request. DOP cited an earlier Ohio Supreme Court case that in turn cited Ohio Revised Code § 149.43(A)(2)(c).

Under that earlier case, State ex rel. Steckman v. Jackson, 70 Ohio St. 3d 420, 639 N.E.2d 83 (1994), records falling under the disclosure exemption in R.C. 149.43(A)(2)(c) remained unavailable to a criminal defendant, even after all direct appeals had been exhausted and the defendant was seeking post-conviction relief. This led to harsh results. An Eighth District case suggested, for example, that such confidential-law-enforcement records could remain unavailable until the defendant's death. Perry v. Onunwor, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 78398, 2000 WL 1871753 (Dec. 7, 2000). In Caster, Justice Pfeifer, writing for the Court, recognized the rule's cold and extreme result, asking: "How did we get to this point?"

How we got to that point, the Court concluded, had in large part to do with an earlier concern that a person convicted of a crime should not have available to him or her in a post-conviction proceeding any more evidence than would have been available under former Crim.R. 16. at the original trial. And Crim.R. 16 earlier had limited what was available.

But Crim.R. 16 changed. In 2010, Ohio expanded the state's duty to disclose certain materials and information―and importantly, required that a criminal defendant's public records request be treated as a discovery demand, as long as it was made to the agency involved in the prosecution or investigation of that case. See Caster, Slip Op. at 16 (citing 2016 Staff Note to Crim.R. 16).

As a result, the disparity between Crim.R. 16 and R.C. 149.43 no longer existed, and Steckman's reasoning for withholding documents no longer held up. The Court thus overturned it.

Most poignantly, the Court relayed a story illustrating the need to overrule Steckman in the interest of justice. In the Steckman consolidated cases, one of the defendants, Larkins, was denied the records he sought. It turned out that another person filed a public-records request for Larkins and for unknown reasons was provided the records. That person forwarded them to Larkins. The records ultimately formed the basis for Larkins's subsequent successful motions for new trial and for dismissal―based on the state's failure to earlier disclose exculpatory evidence. As the Court recognized: "Larkins gained access to the records that led to the dismissal of his indictment only through an act of bureaucratic grace. Or a bureaucratic mistake. Whichever the case, a clear rule would be better and is necessary."

Yesterday's holding means that wrongfully convicted criminal defendants need not rely on bureaucratic grace―or bureaucratic mistake―to obtain justice. And Ohio's public-records law receives the liberal construction it was intended to have to provide broad access.

Chandra Law has had considerable experience pursuing cases under R.C. 149.43, Ohio's public-records law, often to hold law-enforcement agencies accountable for their conduct.

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