WARREN — The Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, in a brief filed in a wiretapping case, says the public’s right of privacy should outweigh factors such as an attempt to detect criminal activity.
Assistant Prosecutors Charles Morrow and Ryan Sanders filed the document last week in the appeal of a Trumbull County judge’s decision to dismiss felony wiretapping charges against the former Liberty schools superintendent.
On Dec. 30, 2021, Common Pleas Judge Ronald J. Rice dismissed six felony charges against Joseph Nohra, 51, of Topper Hill Drive, Hubbard, who left that job in 2020. The misdemeanor counts against Nohra of interfering with civil rights have been set aside until the appeal of the felony charges is completed.
In his dismissal decision, Rice stated the court “finds that there is lack of guidance as to what constitutes an oral communication in this regard and that such lack of guidance leads to the arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of this statute.”
The charges dealt with Nohra, when he was superintendent, setting up a hidden surveillance camera and audio above an employee’s desk in the district office in the bus garage. The allegations came from an investigation initiated by the state auditor’s office that was executed through a search warrant by local authorities at Liberty schools on March 5, 2019.
In their brief last week, the prosecutors noted that the state’s wiretapping law is not vague.
“There is no rational line of reasoning that an ordinary person would believe that the clandestine placement of an audio / video camera above an employee’s desk to record conversations would not constitute an invasion of that person’s right of privacy.”
The prosecutors state Ohio law in this matter “conveys a sufficiently definite warning” that concealing a camera in a carbon monoxide detector is criminal, the brief stated — noting that the conversations of at least four people were recorded.
Prosecutors were joined in the argument in a “friend of the court” brief filed by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office. In his document, Solicitor General Benjamin Flowers also attacks the vagueness argument.
“The definition of oral communications incorporates the well-understood and oft-applied reasonable expectation of privacy applicable in Fourth Amendment cases,” Flowers wrote. “Many courts recognize that people have an expectation of conversation privacy in an office.”
Defense attorney David Betras, however, has explained Nohra at the time was presented with credible evidence that a school employee may have been involved in theft in office. Nohra, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and its legal counsel, initiated his own investigation that resulted in that employee’s resignation, Betras stated previously.
Betras did not file a response to the latest documents from the prosecutors, according to the court docket. A spokesman for Betras’ law office said he is checking when that response will come.
Court officials expect a ruling to come from the 11th District Court of Appeals, based in Warren, in a few months. If the appellate court upholds the judge’s decision, the misdemeanor charges could be remanded to Girard Municipal Court. But if the court rules otherwise, the case may be returned to Rice’s courtroom for a trial.