MILLERSBURG -- Years-old traffic citations pending against two defendants were dismissed Wednesday, but not before the actions of a local attorney were called into question during a morning hearing in Holmes County Municipal Court.
Karen Miller, 2193 Township Road 406, Sugarcreek, had been charged with a stop sign violation stemming from a Jan. 9, 2012, incident. Joseph E. Troyer, 4820 County Road 120, Millersburg, had been charged with speeding out of a July 23, 2013, traffic stop.
Citations against both were among a handful of undisposed cases found in October on the desk of the late Judge Jane Irving. Defendants in all the cases had been represented by attorney Paul Miller, according to Holmes County Assistant Prosecutor Steve Knowling, who represented the state at hearings on motions to dismiss, which were filed by newly retained defense counsel Mark Baserman Jr.
The cases were returned to the court docket once they were discovered.
In both cases, Baserman asked for dismissal because both the statute of limitations and speedy trial deadlines had well expired. Knowling agreed, but only after visiting Judge David Stucki presided over hearings on the motions.
In 2013, Karen Miller testified, she'd hired Paul Miller who reportedly told her he would "take care of it." She said she never appeared in court and believed the matter was resolved. She said she never authorized the attorney to do anything unethical or illegal.
Similarly, Troyer's citation had become inactive in the court. Troyer did not testify Wednesday, although Baserman stipulated to the fact there had been no docketed activity in the case beyond filing of the citation and setting of an arraignment, which was never held. There was no evidence Troyer had failed to appear for any court hearing.
Sworn in as a witness, Paul Miller said he has practiced as a licensed attorney since 1972. The bulk of his practice has been in real estate and business law, and he said he did very little criminal work. He said he did not practice in municipal court and was not aware of how Irving conducted her court.
In the estimated 10-15 criminal cases he's handled during his career, he said, he likely spoke informally with Irving, with whom he was familiar even before she became a lawyer herself. None of the cases ever went to trial and he said he believes most were resolved during pretrial negotiations with the prosecutor's office. He said he recalled Karen Miller, but not Troyer, although he could not deny involvement in the case, which bore his name.
In response to pointed interrogation by Knowling, he offered no explanation why there may have been consideration given to those he represented, absent the state's involvement, which caused them to go dormant.
In short, Miller said, he discussed informally with Irving certain cases, which were dealt with separately and outside the routine of the court, which typically requires an appearance in the courtroom. He said it's a practice he likely observed with Irving's predecessor, Judge Francis Smith.
"In all the years, however many, with the court, formally or informally, never to my knowledge has one single recidivist come back when given consideration (outside the courtroom)," said Paul Miller, explaining, "It may not be the formal way, and I'm not suggesting it should go on that way."
He suggested the arrangements were less an attempt to circumvent the system, and more akin to just pulling a case to be placed on hold to be visited another day. He said he could not comment, because of his lack of exposure to the court, if consideration afforded his clients was out of the ordinary. "I truly do not know, and I could care less if you think I'm competent or incompetent at this point," he told Knowling.
Citing a recent Daily Record article, Paul Miller said Irving was one of a few local prominent figures, including former Rubbermaid CEO Stan Gault and veteran Wayne County politician Jim Carmichael, lost in 2016. Before becoming judge, Irving was a partner in his law practice and "I considered her a personal and professional close friend."
"I may have done things wrong in regard to Joseph Troyer and Karen Miller. I'll take that blame," he said, congratulating Irving for operating an effective "people's court."
Addressing the parties involved and a full gallery, Stucki said a judge's oath obligates him to administer justice without regard to those involved. "How I've always interpreted that, it doesn't matter who is standing in front of me -- a local lawyer, a local judge, Stan Gault, or Barack Obama -- everyone is equal above the law. Everyone should be treated the same."
And any hint of impropriety is damaging to the entire system, he said, noting, "When someone gets the idea they'll be treated differently, that affects every single aspect of every person."
However, Stucki said, dismissal of the two cases was appropriate.
In response to Stucki's explanation, Baserman, who also is Irving's son, stood and said, "The prior judge is deceased and the community should be hesitant to impugn the conduct of someone who is deceased and cannot defend their actions."
Agreeing with Baserman that both defendants were blameless in their cases becoming dormant, Knowling said he pursued them not to indict Irving, but because "this has festered for a long time and I could not ethically let it go on without confronting (Paul Miller). It was directed at the attorney involved."
All forgotten defendants, Knowling said, are "in this mess because of whatever happened and the actions of their attorney at the time."
A third defendant, David Michael Johnson, accused of speeding in July 2014, remained represented by Paul Miller, who entered a no contest plea on his behalf. He was convicted of the charge and assessed court costs only.
Reporter Christine Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.