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Youngstown police officer jailed for not wearing mask

YOUNGSTOWN — Late action by an appellate court Friday sprung a Youngstown policeman from the Mahoning County jail.

Youngstown police officer Thomas Wisener was sentenced to 10 days in jail earlier Friday, during a hearing in which Youngstown Municipal Judge Carla Baldwin found Wisener in contempt for violating the court’s mask order Feb. 23.

Wisener was taken from the court and transferred to the Mahoning County jail.

The police union, however, made a legal appeal to a higher court, saying the mask order interfered with the officer’s free exercise of religion.

The 7th District Court of Appeals in the late afternoon ruled that Wisener should be allowed to leave the Mahoning County jail immediately to await the results of an appeal filed by his attorney.

The appellate court decision, signed by judges Gene Donofrio and Cheryl Waite, approved the motion by attorney Dan Leffler of the Ohio Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, asking for a stay of the 10-day jail sentence.

The entry states that the ruling applies to the “jail portion only” of the sentence because Wisener “would have no effective” way to get a decision from the appeals court before he would have served the entire sentence. Wisener was allowed to leave jail on his own recognizance, meaning he does not have to pay anything.

WHY THIS HAPPENED

Baldwin instituted a new mask policy effective Feb. 28 that removed requirements for employees and the public to wear a mask in the building if they are fully vaccinated. But before that, masks were required.

Court Administrator David Magura said Friday that the mask order in effect starting last August required everyone entering the courthouse to wear protective facial coverings. Individuals with a âmedically documented reason for preventing them from wearing the facial coveringsã had to let the court know, he said.

Wisener appeared Feb. 23 before visiting Judge David Fuhry for a preliminary hearing “and he refused to wear a facial covering,” Magura said. Wisener was there to testify, if necessary, as a police officer in a criminal case, Magura said. At that time, a “show-cause” hearing was scheduled for Wisener for Friday before Baldwin.

A show-cause hearing is the accused person’s opportunity to “show cause for why he should not be held in contempt of court,” Magura said.

According to municipal court documents, Fuhry advised Wisener Feb. 23 he was in violation of the court’s masking order and advised him the penalties were a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. The court set a hearing on the matter for Friday.

Baldwin found Wisener “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” as a result of Friday’s hearing, sentenced Wisener to 10 days in jail and imposed a $250 fine, according to a journal entry in the case.

Youngstown police Staff Inspector Lt. Brian Butler released the following statement about Wisener’s sentence: “Officer Wisener will face disciplinary action for being found in contempt of court. He is entitled to due process, pursuant to his collective bargaining agreement. He made a conscious decision to not follow the court’s order.”

POLICE UNION

Leffler of the Ohio Patrolman’s Benevolent Association said he was in court with Wisener on Friday for the hearing and said Wisener felt that the requirement to wear a mask “interfered with his free exercise of religion.” Leffler said Baldwin indicated the mask order was applied “without regard to persons or exceptions.”

Leffler said he believes the “generally accepted standard is that there is some type of exemption for deeply held religious beliefs. We think it could have been handled probably in a different manner. We would have liked to see the court maybe just caution him and move on from there.”

He added, “We think the 10 days and $250 fine was excessive under the circumstances given that this was his first charge of contempt.”

He appealed to have the sentencing reversed under the free exercise of religion under the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions. “He did decline to wear it based on religious beliefs,” Leffler said.

There is a “factual dispute over what occurred” during the Feb. 23 hearing, Leffler said.

“It’s our understanding he was never directly told by the court to wear the mask. Obviously there was a posting on the court for the mask requirements, although it’s our understanding he was never directly ordered by the judge or court to wear it.”

Leffler on Friday asked that Baldwin set a bond pending appeal, but the judge denied that motion, Leffler said. Leffler then filed another motion Friday with the appeals court to ask it to issue a bond and got a quick ruling.

Wisener received two of about 80 awards the police department gave out in September for officers performing in an exemplary manner. One commendation was for his performance in “any single instance or incident,” and another was for showing “a high degree of initiative or police professional skill.”

erunyan@vindy.com

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