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Advocates disappointed in amended expungement bill

Proposal to shield only online view of all charges does not go far enough, supporters say

Crimes a defendant was charged with but never convicted of will be shielded from online view under an expungement bill that passed the House of Delegates last week, but advocates say the amendments made in committee diminish the bill’s effect.

House Bill 220 addresses “partial expungement” of records where some of the charges relating to a single incident did not result in convictions but at least one charge did. Normally, that entire file would be barred from expungement.

The bill received a favorable report from the House Judiciary Committee but was amended to limit the partial expungement process to files on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website. The bill then passed the House of Delegates on March 17.

“While we’re thrilled that the House Judiciary Committee and the full House of Delegates chamber was able to acknowledge and support the concept of allowing for expungement of charges that did not result in a conviction… we were a tad disappointed by the fact that partial expungement was limited to only Case Search,” said Caryn Aslan York, senior policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force.

York said while the House version of the bill is now before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the cross-filed Senate Bill 328 has not been voted on by the committee.

The goal of the bill, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, is to prevent potential employers or landlords from judging an applicant based on a long list of charges, not just the ones with convictions. It was the priority bill for the JOTF this year.

“We’re not trying to pull the wool over employers’ eyes,” York said. “These are charges where you were not found guilty.”

York said it’s a “huge step” to remove the charges from Case Search but said the electronic record in the Criminal Justice Information System will still exist, and some employers ask for that report rather than relying on the public database.

‘Sole determinant’

Advocates plan to try to incorporate Case Search and CJIS into any amendments the Senate considers to its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City.

“For these other positions that pay good wages, that are stable jobs… these are the ones that are really using your criminal background as a sole determinant as to whether you’re a good candidate for employment,” York said.

Current law permits a person to file for expungement on certain grounds, including acquittal, dismissal of charges, entry of probation before judgment, entry of nolle prosequi, stet of charge and gubernatorial pardon, according to legislative analysts. Multiple charges from the same incident are considered one unit, and charges cannot be expunged unless each one in the unit qualifies.

Partial expungement is being done now, according to York, but only certain judges are aware of the practice and willing to work with defendants.

York said she learned from Maryland’s CJIS director that, in some instances, judges send an amended expungement order that only consists of the charges eligible for expungement. The conviction remains in the record but the remaining charges are removed.

“Partial expungement is happening right now, but it’s up to the judge,” she said.

The original bill proposed allowing people to request charges not resulting in a conviction be removed from both physical and electronic records, but members of the Maryland Judiciary and state prosecutors objected on practical grounds at a February hearing for the Senate version of the bill.

John P. Morrissey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, said redacting information from physical files would be time-consuming for judges, as would eliminating electronic evidence.

Prosecutors’ concerns

Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney John Cox, speaking on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association at the hearing, said the bill would be a logistical nightmare for courts because every guilty plea usually involves dropping some charges.

Members of the Judiciary’s legislative committee were reviewing the revised bill Wednesday afternoon and could not immediately comment on any change in their position, according to Judiciary spokeswoman Terri Charles.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who opposed the original bill, said Wednesday the original draft was “actually physically impossible” as written. Expunging charges completely would shield them from prosecutors and judges who may want to know that an individual was previously charged with certain crimes even if they were not convictions, he said.

“Now, it’s a good balance between trying to protect the defendant’s right to have certain crimes expunged while at the same time allowing state’s attorneys and judges to know what an individual was charged with,” he said.

Prosecutors can still object to the Case Search expungement under the amended bill, according to Shellenberger, which allows the parties to go to court and allow the judge to use discretion.