Though some “second chance” legislation failed to pass the General Assembly in 2019 despite years of pushes from advocates, a bill to provide a tool to prosecutors to vacate past unjust convictions gained bipartisan support and passed both chambers by the last day of session.
House Bill 874, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, would allow prosecutors to file a motion asking to vacate a probation before judgment or conviction in the interest of justice and fairness if newly discovered evidence makes them doubt its integrity.
Barron said that although some Republican colleagues initially opposed the legislation, he spent time explaining how it worked and why it was necessary and eventually gained support.
“It’s amazing what can happen when you do the legwork and talk to your colleagues, to your friends across party lines,” he said.
The law was designed in part to address an issue in Baltimore: State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office is attempting to vacate hundreds of convictions that relied heavily on testimony from corrupt Gun Trace Task Force officers.
Mosby testified that some judges are denying joint motions filed by the state and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender because the judges do not think the law allows the relief. Mosby said existing remedies in the law often do not fit the circumstances of these cases.
Barron said Tuesday the “meat” of the bill was finding a way to take care of unjust convictions that a prosecutor has identified as unreliable.
“These GTTF-related cases in Baltimore just highlight the fact that there’s a gap,” he said.
Mosby said the law, which would be effective Oct. 1 if signed into law, gives prosecutors a method to seek “justice over convictions.”
“We are beyond elated that (the bill) has passed and prosecutors all over the state will soon have the procedural right to revisit convictions for those that were unfairly or wrongly convicted,” Mosby said in a statement.
The new vacateur law may also be helpful for human trafficking survivor advocates, who saw their attempt to close a perceived gap in the justice system for survivors with criminal records fall short again.
Cross-filed bills would have expanded the law that currently allows individuals to have prostitution convictions vacated to other misdemeanors that are committed under duress as a result of human trafficking.
House Bill 782 passed its chamber after advocates worked with the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association to address concerns, but neither that bill nor its cross-file, Senate Bill 691, received a vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“The reality is that victims are truly being left behind in this state,” Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Tuesday.
Emerson said it’s unclear why the bills, which have been introduced in previous years but never before gained the support of prosecutors, stalled in the Senate committee. Chairman Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, and House sponsor Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
“I think that the state of Maryland seems to have, quite honestly, an endless appetite for anti-trafficking legislation but only that which increases penalties for trafficking and not those that try to minimize the impact of being trafficked,” Emerson said.
She called the support eventually provided by prosecutors this session “emblematic of the exact fundamental shift in perspective that Maryland so desperately needs” and said advocates will likely bring the legislation forward again next session.
Barron’s vacateur bill was one Emerson and other advocates watched with interest, however, and she said it could be used to help trafficking survivors if a prosecutor agrees that a conviction should be vacated.
Barron’s attempt to allow individuals to expunge or shield non-convictions from their record also failed to pass despite continued support for its intended purpose.
House Bill 13 would have allowed crimes an individual was not convicted of to be expunged 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.
Proponents say the presence of a charge, regardless of whether it resulted in a conviction, can cause an individual to lose employment and education opportunities.
After it passed the House, the Senate amended the bill to allow individuals to shield charges from the online Maryland Judiciary Case Search, and Barron said he was satisfied with that option, which also gave the Maryland Judiciary time to make sure it could comply.
“Clearly, there’s a lot of agreement around Case Search being problematic as it relates to job opportunities,” Barron said.
Delegates refused to concur with the Senate amendments and a conference committee was appointed Monday but did not have time to resolve the issues, he said.
“I think some of what was going on, there seemed to be some confusion in the House about the amendments and what they did,” he said. “The safest thing if there is some misunderstanding or confusion is to not concur and do a conference.”
Barron said he is unsure if he will reintroduce the legislation next year.