OTTAWA COUNTY (WKBN) – An Ohio judge was sanctioned by the Ohio Supreme Court for having conversations with a defendant through Facebook.
Ottawa County Judge Bruce Winters was issued a six-month suspension, but that was stayed pending several conditions.
The court found that Judge Winters violated several codes of conduct when he began communicating with Keith Blumensaadt outside of the courtroom.
According to court documents, Winters was Blumensaadt’s probation officer in the early 1980s before he was a judge. The two had minimal contact until 30 years later when Winters signed a protection order against Blumensaadt, issued by Blumensaadt’s brother and nephew.
Blumensaadt was subsequently arrested on 12 felony counts and appeared before Winters where the judge disclosed his prior relationship with the defendant, but the prosecutor and defense counsel said they didn’t have an issue with it.
Blumensaadt accepted a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to two felonies and one misdemeanor. Winters sentenced him to time served and a 180-day jail term.
About 30 days after Blumensaadt was released from jail, he and Winters became Facebook friends and communicated regularly using the Facebook Messenger app.
Several audio conversations included discussions about personal and professional matters, including multiple cases over which Winters presided, according to court documents.
On August 21, 2019, an Ottawa County grand jury indicted a person on drug charges. Blumensaadt messaged Winters and told him that the defendant had sold his daughter heroin and asked him to not impose a “bond he can make.”
At the defendant’s arraignment, Winters apparently did not honor the request and released the defendant on a recognizance bond, which involves no money.
Winters presided over the case and the defendant was sentenced to 24 months in prison. However, Winters did not disclose his prior conversations with Blumensaadt, according to court documents.
The panel found that Winters’ actions violated the code of conduct, including his conversations with Blumensaadt and the information he shared with him about other court cases.
In addition, the two communicated about Blumensaadt’s divorce and custody case, which was pending in Winters’ court. Winters granted custody of the couple’s child to Blumensaadt in September 2019.
Blumensaadt also messaged Winters about his mother’s pending funeral and the protection order that was filed against him and a personal injury claim.
The board said they considered numerous cases with sanctions ranging from a public reprimand to permanent disbarment but subsequently decided to suspend Winters from the practice of law for six months, with the suspension stayed on the condition that he complete a minimum of three hours of continuing judicial education focusing on communications outside of the courtroom and appropriate use of social media, refrain from further misconduct and pay court costs. The decision was unanimous.