A jury in Bryan Municipal Court, on Tuesday afternoon, found Williams County Sheriff Steve Towns guilty of one first-degree misdemeanor charge and not guilty on another.
The charges, brought against Towns this summer stem from his October 2018 online release of documents related to child abuse cases his office has been investigating and a discussion Towns conducted with a Williams County parent that included elements of information contained in those documents.
Specifically, Towns was charged with two counts of public dissemination of confidential information related to a child abuse case.
While Towns in October 2018 posted more than 600 pages of investigative reports related to child abuse cases, the redacted document release also contained information on several other cases involving the Bryan City School district and the Williams County Department of Jobs & Family Services — specifically child protective services.
Three counts of public dissemination of confidential information were dropped by the prosecution prior to this week’s trial. Those counts related to the school division and cases related to Williams County JFS.
The two remaining counts relate specifically to a report from Hicksville’s Community Memorial Hospital’s ER on June 28, 2016. The count against Towns specifically states that Towns “disclosed a confidential report of suspected sexual abuse made by a nurse from Hicksville Hospital who is a mandatory reporter under (Ohio Revised Code) R.C. 2151.421, concerning abuse of an infant in June 2016. This confidential report of suspected child abuse was disseminated by Defendant Steven M. Towns in one of his publicly posted documents.”
Count one related to the online posting of the documents containing information specific to the suspected case of child abuse to the infant. The prosecution concentrated on state law and a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Towns that should have prevented Towns from releasing any information related to a mandatory reporter.
Of the more than 600 pages placed online at the direction of Towns, information related to this case included the reference to “Nurse Pam” as the mandatory reporter — a violation of the MOU as well as state law, according to the prosecution.
Count two related to the brief mention by Towns of an element of this particular case to a Williams County parent with concerns for her own children and issues with Williams County child protective services.
During a brief video clip placed in evidence by the prosecution, Towns is heard speaking to the parent about the case. Prosecutors stressed to the jury that this was in violation of the law. Towns’ defense team argued that the information shared by Towns in this instance was a matter of public information, as following the death of the child information related to the case was available through court records and media reports.
Tuesday was the second day of the trial. On Monday, the prosecution brought to the stand 10 witnesses who testified to the online document posting, the process of redaction preparation, laws and policy related to child abuse reporting and authority to disseminate information, and investigations conducted by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The prosecution stated its intent to rest at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing.
Prior to beginning the hearing before the jury, Towns’ defense team made a motion for a Judgment of Acquittal of the charges. Defense attorney Stevin Groth made a case to Judge S. Dwight Osterud that there was no intentional willful or wanton behavior in the dissemination of information in either case.
Williams County Special Prosecutor Mark Weaver stated it was reckless of Towns to release confidential information on the internet.
Judge Osterud denied the motion, and called for the jury to enter the courtroom and be seated.
The prosecution officially rested its case, and the defense took the floor.
The only witness for the defense was Towns.
Towns testified that the information he eventually released was prepared after he was asked to prepare a report of his investigations of child abuse cases. “During the investigations, I was asked by the Williams County Commissioners to do a report. It took a while, but I put a report together.”
That report, with redactions, was placed online in October 2018.
To Groth’s questions, Towns testified to the redaction process, the online posting process, and the quick turn around in taking the posts down when he became aware that some of the pages hadn’t been fully redacted — revealing some personal information.
About sharing confidential information with a private citizen, Towns told the court, “I said look it up on the internet … Google it and you’ll see what it’s all about.”
On cross examination, Weaver kept Towns to “yes” and “no” answers, many of which related to Towns not abiding by the MOU related to child abuse reports, that he was not authorized to release the information.
In closing arguments, Groth recounted to the jury that the information released by Towns contained more than 600 pages, and only three or four lacked complete redaction.
Towns immediately took the web posting down and personally apologized to those identified in the pages. “If he was reckless, would he respond that way?” he asked the jury.
Other than the three or four missed pages, Groth pointed out that testimony shows that the document was vetted and redacted thoughtfully.
“This is a man who did not break the law,” Groth told the jury.
In the prosecution’s rebuttal, Weaver told the jury that Towns “acted with heedless indifference” in handling the case information, and he declared “It’s not about child abuse. It’s about calling out people in the reports.”
The case was turned over to the jury shortly before noon, and they deliberated until 4:20 p.m.
The verdict on both counts was read for the court by the court’s clerk.
On count one, Towns was found guilty of disseminating confidential information of a child abuse case to the public, a first-degree misdemeanor.
On count two, Towns was found not guilty of disseminating confidential information of a child abuse case to a private citizen.
Judge Osterud thanked the jury for their service and proceeded immediately into sentencing.
The prosecution said the court should consider the seriousness of the crime, and also the time and expense associated with the prosecution.
Weaver recommended no incarceration, but a suspended sentence and a probation requirement that Towns not disseminate information about similar cases during his probation. Weaver also asked for a training requirement.
Towns’ defense attorney noted that Towns was motivated to help child victims of abuse. He asked the judge to consider non-jail sanctions and public service as a sentence.
Judge Osterud asked Towns if he had a comment.
Towns told the court that his foremost concern was child abuse, and “things not being taken care of (by child protective services) to protect children.”
Judge Osterud responded that Towns had shown “extremely poor judgment,” and that as a result, “people have probably been harmed in the process,” stating that having placed this material online, “these things can pop up years from now.”
Judge Osterud then sentenced Towns to 180 days in jail, “in a jail not in Williams County and a jail not in Stryker,” a fine of $500, and three years probation.
The judge suspended the jail term, but informed Towns that, “If this occurs again, the chance of you going to jail is highly likely.”
Judge Osterud said probation should be conducted by a probation department not affiliated with Williams County.
Following the trial, Prosecutor Weaver said, “The case that we brought to this jury was streamlined down to two charges: one was the mass distribution to everybody; and, one was the single distribution to one private citizen. It’s clear that the jury was very incensed about the mass distribution to everybody on the internet and less so about the individual.
“I’ve been prosecuting cases for a long time, I’ve learned to respect juries and so we will respect their decision in this case,” said Weaver.
Defense Attorney Groth said, “We’re disappointed. The sheriff is a good man. He has served the community very well for a very long time in law enforcement.
“We have a combination of matters that we will likely consider an appeal on — evidentiary rulings that limited some of the things that we could say at trial,” among them, Groth said.
Sheriff Towns said, “Obviously, I’m just trying to do the best I can to take care of the public, and I put public safety first. I’ve done everything I thought I could to try to help let the public know that children weren’t getting dealt with properly.”
Towns said the verdict won’t affect his duties as sheriff.
As for his bid for re-election, an appeal of the conviction may be necessary. Ohio Revised Code, Title 3, Sec. 3.11.01 (5) states a conviction or guilty plea on a first-degree misdemeanor is a disqualifier for the office.