State v. Towns, 2020-1503

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtBRUNNER, J.
Citation2022 Ohio 3632
PartiesThe State of Ohio, Appellee, v. Towns, Sheriff, Appellant.
Docket Number2020-1503
Decision Date18 October 2022

2022-Ohio-3632

The State of Ohio, Appellee,
v.

Towns, Sheriff, Appellant.

No. 2020-1503

Supreme Court of Ohio

October 18, 2022


Submitted November 10, 2021

APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Williams County, No. WM-19-023, 2020-Ohio-5120.

Mark R. Weaver, Ryan Stubenrauch, and David C. Moser, for appellee.

Groth and Associates and Henry Schaefer, for appellant.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, Benjamin M. Flowers, Solicitor General, Michael J. Hendershot, Chief Deputy Solicitor General, and Paul M. Nick, Assistant Attorney General, urging affirmance on behalf of amicus curiae Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Steven L. Taylor, urging affirmance on behalf of amicus curiae Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

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BRUNNER, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

{¶ 1} This case concerns a sheriff who was found guilty of a violation of R.C. 102.03(B), a provision of Ohio ethics law, for posting confidential information on the sheriffs office website. The issue presented in this case is whether R.C. 102.03(B) allows a prosecuting authority to proceed with a criminal complaint that is subject to R.C. Chapter 102 when the complaint has not been reviewed by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

{¶ 2} We hold that R.C. 102.03(B) does not prevent an "appropriate prosecuting authority" from independently bringing a complaint under R.C. Chapter 102, even though R.C. 102.06 states that the appropriate ethics commission[1] "shall receive and may initiate" a complaint against a person subject to R.C. Chapter 102 and allows that commission to refer the complaint for prosecution. We thus hold that R.C. 102.06 sets out a method by which ethical issues may be considered and resolved but that the method is not a prerequisite for criminal prosecution.

{¶ 3} Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Sixth District Court of Appeals.

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II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

{¶ 4} On June 20, 2019, a special agent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (whose assistance had been requested by special prosecutors) filed a three-count complaint in the Bryan Municipal Court of Williams County, Ohio, against appellant, Steven Towns, who was then the Williams County sheriff. The charges included a violation of R.C. 102.03(B), a misdemeanor of the first degree, for the alleged unauthorized disclosure of confidential information on the sheriffs office website. Towns pled not guilty to all the counts and filed a motion to dismiss.

{¶ 5} In his motion, Towns presented arguments about the constitutionality of the statutes under which he was being prosecuted, the jurisdiction of the court to proceed, and what he perceived to be the selective nature of the prosecution. Relevant to the issue before this court, he argued that violations of R.C. 102.03(B) are matters within the sole jurisdiction of the Ohio Ethics Commission unless and until that body refers such cases for prosecution.

{¶ 6} On October 21, 2019, the trial court denied the motion without stating its reasons for doing so. After the state voluntarily dismissed some of the charges, the remaining charges were tried to a jury. The jury found Towns guilty of disclosing confidential information in violation of R.C. 102.03(B).[2] The trial court then entered an order imposing a $500 fine and three years of community control with a 180-day suspended jail sentence.

{¶ 7} On appeal, the Sixth District Court of Appeals affirmed Towns's conviction, overruling seven assignments of error. 2020-Ohio-5120, ¶ 32. The Sixth District specifically considered the issue that is now before this court: may a criminal prosecution be brought alleging a violation of R.C. 102.03(B) without a prior review of the charges by the Ohio Ethics Commission. The appellate court noted that R.C. 102.06 provides a framework for the ethics commission to receive

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and initiate complaints against a person for a violation of a provision of R.C. Chapter 102; if the complaint is substantiated by a preponderance of the evidence, the statute provides that the ethics commission may report its findings to the appropriate authority for prosecution. The appellate court reasoned that there is no explicit indication in the statute or other authority that that quasi-judicial process is mandatory or exclusive. The appellate court found that the trial court did not err in refusing to dismiss the R.C. 102.03 charges against Towns on these grounds.

{¶ 8} Towns appealed and asked this court to accept jurisdiction of multiple propositions of law. However, the court accepted the case on only the proposition of law questioning whether the prosecutor's action against Towns could proceed. See 161 Ohio St.3d 1449, 2021-Ohio-534, 163 N.E.3d 586.

III. DISCUSSION

{¶ 9} The facts of this case are not in dispute. The question presented is one of interpretation of law, and we review questions of law de novo. See State v. Taylor, 163 Ohio St.3d 508, 2020-Ohio-6786, 171 N.E.3d 290, ¶ 15.

{¶ 10} Towns was convicted of violating R.C. 102.03(B), which prohibits any present or former public official from disclosing or using,

without appropriate authorization, any information acquired by the public official or employee in the course of the public official's or employee's official duties that is confidential because of statutory provisions, or that has been clearly designated to the public official or employee as confidential when that confidential designation is warranted because of the status of the proceedings or the circumstances under which the information was received and preserving its confidentiality is necessary to the proper conduct of government business.
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A violation of R.C. 102.03 is a misdemeanor of the first degree. R.C. 102.99(B).

{¶ 11} Generally, in Ohio, the authority that can be exercised by county prosecuting attorneys and city attorneys or law directors is established by enabling acts. R.C. 309.08(A) and 733.53. In the absence of some other law limiting the general jurisdiction of the Williams County prosecuting attorney's office, the prosecutor had the authority to charge Towns...

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