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Partial expungement bill still concerns Judiciary, prosecutors

Having district court commissioners determine if defendants are indigent would compromise the commissioners’ ability to be neutral arbiters in cases, Chief Maryland District Court Judge John P. Morrissey told state senators Thursday. ‘We are not the prosecuting body,’ he said. ‘We are the neutral body.’(Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

‘I want to satisfy what you all are requesting, it just takes time and money,’ district court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey told lawmakers this week in explaining the Judiciary’s opposition to a bill for partial expungement of criminal records from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Second-chance advocates are continuing their push for legislative changes to how Maryland treats criminal cases that result in convictions on some but not all charges, but prosecutors and the Judiciary still have the same concerns about the initiative.

House Bill 840, introduced by Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, would allow crimes an individual was not convicted of to be removed from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website even when one or more charges arising from the same incident resulted in a conviction. Normally, the “unit rule” prohibits part of a case from being expunged if the individual was found guilty of any of the offenses.

At a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Barron said the bill introduced this session is similar to the one last year that was voted out of committee and passed by the House of Delegates, only now it includes a delayed effective date to allow the Maryland Judiciary to revamp its systems.

Chief Judge John P. Morrissey of the District Court of Maryland told the committee the Judiciary still opposes the bill as drafted because of some of the terminology and continued concerns about the technology required to comply with the law.

The Judiciary is in the process of phasing out its old systems but they must remain in place until the Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC) system is finished rolling out in 2021, Morrissey said.

“I want to satisfy what you all are requesting, it just takes time and money,” he said.

The new bill requires the Administrative Office of the Courts to provide a report to the General Assembly each year detailing cost estimates, challenges and ultimately a plan to implement partial expungement procedures by Oct. 1, 2021.

Second chances

The impetus behind partial expungement, which acts as a shielding statute, is the problems charges and convictions can cause for individuals in job and housing searches.

Amy Petkovsek, director of advocacy for Maryland Legal Aid, said clients at expungement clinics often tell stories about how charges which were ultimately dropped or resulted in a not guilty verdict are held against them but cannot be expunged because one or more other charges resulted in convictions.

“We see this every single day in our clinics at Maryland Legal Aid,” she said.

Maryland legislators have expressed bipartisan support to allowing non-convictions to be expunged, according to Caryn York, senior policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force, and the unit rule is the “last frontier.”

“What we’ve heard over the years is that the state has been unable to move forward with repealing the unit rule due to technological challenges,” she said.

Last year’s House bill underwent significant revisions in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee but the changes were eventually rolled into the Justice Reinvestment Act. A conference committee ran out of time to produce a bill to satisfy the policy desires as well as address practical considerations of the Judiciary.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the Senate committee’s chairman, said last week he agrees with Barron’s idea that a charge determined to be unfounded and ultimately dropped should not haunt a person. But Zirkin said removing barriers must be balanced with public safety concerns.

“You can come up with hypotheticals where you would certainly think it would be warranted,” he said.

Zirkin said his committee would take a hard look at the bill should it pass the House.

“I think it’s probably going to require a scalpel and not a sledgehammer,” he said.

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association objects to the bill for policy reasons, William Katcef, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County told the committee Tuesday. Prosecutors opposed last year’s bill in part because more serious charges are often dropped as part of plea agreements, not because there is no proof to support them.

The bill allows a prosecutor to object to the expungement and request a hearing.

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