Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Father Entitled to Records Involving Son’s Student Sex Conviction

The father of an imprisoned former school teacher is entitled to public records of his son’s conviction on sex charges, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In its per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court found 5-2 that the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office did not provide sufficient evidence for its claim that the father was acting at his son’s direction by seeking the records in an attempt to circumvent the Ohio Public Records Act.

The Court ruled that the county must provide Charles Summers with most of the records he requested concerning the 2013 sexual battery convictions of his son Chris Summers when he was a teacher at Fort Recovery High School.

The Court explained that under R.C. 149.43(B)(8), inmates must seek judicial approval of public record requests related to their convictions. Mercer County Prosecutor Matthew Fox and Sheriff Jeff Grey denied Charles Summers’ requests, claiming that the father was acting as Chris’ designee and must also receive judicial approval to obtain the records.

But the Court concluded the law applies to someone who is directed by an inmate to obtain the records, but not “someone who simply wants to benefit an inmate.”

The county asked the justices to presume the son’s advice on how to use the records on his parents’ “Justice for Chris” Facebook page was “the driving force behind the request.” But the majority opinion noted that the conversation about how to use the information on Facebook took place a year after Charles filed the records request. The county did not provide any evidence that Chris discussed or directed the request his father made.

The majority opinion stated that the county’s “assumption does not rise to the level of clear and convincing proof necessary to apply to an exception to the Public Records Act.”

The county alleged that Charles already possesses most of the records requested, having received them from a private investigator hired by Jeffrey Rasawehr. Rasawehr operates the website and published articles about Summers’ criminal convictions. Rasawehr’s use of his website to criticize Mercer County officials was the topic of a June 2020 Supreme Court decision. (See Court’s Ban on Future Social Media Postings about Relatives Unconstitutional.)

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Judith L. French agreed with the majority’s view that simply being related to an inmate or having a Facebook page to benefit the inmate does not make the relative a designee under the records act. However, in this case, the county provided ample evidence that Charles was acting on his son’s behalf, even acknowledging that his son considered the information gathered from the county to be his “property,” Justice French concluded.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice French’s dissent.

Teacher Convicted
In February 2013, a Mercer County grand jury indicted Chris on two counts of rape and more than 40 counts of felonious sexual battery. The alleged crimes took place when a student, identified in court records as J.K., attended Fort Recovery High School where Chris was both her teacher and coach.

J.K. reported to law enforcement that Chris coerced her into having a sexual relationship for more than two years.

The prosecution dismissed the rape charges at trial, and after J.K.’s  trial testimony was nearly complete, Chris pleaded guilty to eight counts of violating R.C. 2907.03, which prohibits sexual conduct between a teacher or coach and a student enrolled at the school where the teacher is employed. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A month before the Mercer County indictments, Chris was indicted for a single count of sexual battery involving J.K. in Darke County. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison to run concurrently with the Mercer County sentence.

Parent Attacks Victim, Seeks Vindication on Social Media
Chris’ convictions were upheld on appeal in 2014. In 2015, his parents started a “Justice for Chris” Facebook page, which stated it was created “with the hope that everyone who knows us will learn the whole truth behind what happened to our son.”

The page began to attack officials connected with the case, but the primary target was J.K, who is described as “sick-minded and a huge liar” and in other derogatory terms. In early postings, the parents set out to prove J.K. lied in court and insisted their son should not have been prosecuted because J.K. was a willing participant in a sexual relationship.

In 2017, Charles sent the Mercer County prosecutor and sheriff relatively similar records requests, seeking all audio and video recordings of interviews with participants in the case; notes made by the prosecutor and detectives; photos of a searched home; letters sent to potential defense witnesses; and other records related to the convictions.

The county cited several exceptions in the public records law that allowed them to withhold the requested records. They also deemed Charles to be his son’s designee and required him to follow the judicial-approval process in R.C. 149.43(B)(8) to pursue the records.

Other Social Media Outlet Gets Case Records
More than a year after the request was denied in Mercer County, Darke County Prosecutor Kelly Ormsby received a public records request from Joyce White requesting “everything you have on Chris Summers.” Ormsby turned over all the documents, which included J.K.’s detailed accounts of Chris’ behavior.

Officials later identified White as working for private investigator Jack Bastian, who was hired by Rasawehr. The information from the Darke County prosecutor’s office, including video of J.K.’s interviews with police, were posted on Summers’ parents referenced the website and took material from it to post on their Facebook page, adding captions and summaries to the clips.

In June 2019, parents Charles and Vicki Summers were indicted in Celina Municipal Court on 62 counts of menacing by stalking, telecommunications harassments, and attempts to commit those offenses in relation to their attempt to vindicate their son. The court has stayed the proceedings in the case.

Father Sought Court Order to Release Records
Charles sought a writ of mandamus in 2018, asking the Supreme Court to order the release of the records. Several records were provided to Charles after he and the county mediated the dispute. However, Charles asked the Court to direct the release of the withheld materials.

Before considering the exemptions cited by the county for each of the withheld records, the Court first examined the claim that Charles was not entitled to any record, whether it was public or not, without first getting judicial approval.

The opinion noted the language in R.C. 149.43(B)(8) only refers to the process an inmate must follow to obtain public records. However, the Supreme Court noted in its 2011 State ex rel. Barb v. Cuyahoga Cty. Jury Commr. decision that the law also applies to an inmate’s designee. The Court in Barb found the brother of an inmate cannot do indirectly what the inmate is directly prohibiting from doing.

Charles denied acting as his son’s designee.

The county obtained inmate emails and recorded phone calls between the father and son, in which Charles tells Chris that his mother will post exactly what Chris tells her to say. The county also points to an email Chris sent to Bastian, the private detective hired by Rasawehr, instructing Bastian on how to handle the records obtained from Darke County by White.

Court Rejected Designee Claim
The majority opinion stated the county’s evidence was not sufficient to declare the father as the son’s designee.

The Court also noted that Summers did not hire the private detectives to obtain the records, but rather Rasawehr hired them to publish information about the case on his website.

With the exception of interviews with two witnesses and personal notes taken by the prosecutor and a sheriff’s detective, the Court ordered the county to release the remaining requested records to Charles.

Evidence Indicated Father Acted at Son’s Direction, Dissent Stated
In her dissent, Justice French noted the Barb decision did not explain the “court-created rule” defining who is an inmate’s designee and stated the Supreme Court has not “subsequently provided any additional insight.” She wrote the Court has never required the type of “express, direct delegation of authority” the majority claimed is missing from the county’s conclusion that Charles was acting as his son’s designee.

The dissenting opinion noted the Facebook page was set up to prove that Chris did not receive a fair trial , and the parents used the page to complain about the investigation and the trial. While neither the fact that Charles is Chris’ father, nor the existence of the Facebook page, is itself enough to show the designee relationship, the evidence of Chris having been “intimately involved” in obtaining the evidence and directing how it was to be posted is enough to prove his father was his designee, the dissent concluded.

2018-0959. State ex rel. Summers v. Fox, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-5585.

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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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