Discipline file: Knox County judge tossed friend’s case

Knox Superior Court 2 Judge Ryan D. Johanningsmeier faces judicial discipline proceedings after he reinstated a close friend’s suspended driver’s license and allegedly suggested a deputy prosecutor dismiss the case.

Disciplinary charges were filed against Johanningsmeier by the Indiana Supreme Court on Friday after he was charged with three counts of misconduct related to a case where he did not recuse even though he was partial to the defendant.

In 2015, B.K., a close friend of Johanningsmeier, was charged with speeding in Bicknell City Court, resulting in the suspension of his driver’s license.

Johanningsmeier allegedly reinstated B.K.’s driver license later that month when B.K. petitioned for a trial de novo in Knox Superior Court 2. Without giving the prosecutor an opportunity to respond, Johanningsmeier issued an order granting his friend’s petition and reinstated the license without disclosing their relationship or notifying the prosecutor of the conflict. This came just two weeks after the friends vacationed together out-of-state, according to the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.

In doing so, Johanningsmeier failed to comply with Trial De Novo Rule 2(E), which required him to promptly file an order directing the prosecutor to refile the original infraction complaint.

The matter did not receive a hearing until the Commission issued a notice of inquiry in September 2015, requesting Johanningmeier submit a written response addressing ethical concerns about the situation. It privately cautioned him for violating judicial conduct by “by failing to disqualify himself from a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

However, the commission did not view the situation required immediate action, further noting Johanningmeier had not disclosed the conflict of interest on the record nor made reasonable efforts to transfer the matter to another judge as soon as possible.

The case remained in limbo until March 2017 when the Knox County prosecutor filed a motion for bench trial. Prior to trial, Johanningmeier posted photos on Facebook that showed he and B.K. had celebrated the holidays together while the case continued to languish.

During trial, Johanningsmeier said to a deputy prosecutor, “There is a case. It was a traffic ticket appealed from Bicknell. And it’s a friend of mine. So, um, I was hoping we could just get the State to dismiss it.” The prosecutor replied, “I’ll just move to dismiss,” after which the judge said, “We’ll just show that we grant the State’s Motion to Dismiss.”

The Commission then charged Johanningsmeier for failing to disqualify himself from the matter and continuing to preside over the case after the Commission privately cautioned him against it, stating he violated Rules 1.1 and 1.2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The rules, respectively, require judges to respect and comply with the law and avoid impropriety; and act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary. He also violated Rule 2.2 and 11, which require a judge to perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially and to disqualify himself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

It also alleges Johanningsmeier violated rules 1.2, 1.3, 2.2 and 2.4(B) when he made suggestive statements to the deputy prosecutor, abusing the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal interests of B.K. and allowing an external relationship to influence the judge’s conduct or judgment.

The seven-member commission charges Johanningsmeier also violated Rule 1.2 in regard to the photos he posted on public social media.

The notice of institution of formal proceedings and statement of charges issued Friday requests the court appoint a panel of three masters to conduct a hearing on the alleged misconduct and impose appropriate sanctions. Johanningsmeier has 20 days to file an answer to the charges.

The Supreme Court has final authority to determine what, if any, judicial misconduct occurred. The Court can dismiss the charges, accept or reject a disciplinary agreement between the Commission and Judge Johanningsmeier, appoint a panel of judges to conduct a public hearing, impose a fine, or impose sanctions ranging from a reprimand to a suspension to a permanent ban on holding judicial office in Indiana.

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