ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland General Assembly will again grapple with the practicality and the implications of allowing individuals to remove non-convictions from their records, with advocates continuing to push for an expansion of the state’s expungement law.
Senate Bill 589 and House Bill 1336 would allow crimes an individual was not convicted of to be expunged even when one or more charges arising from the same incident did result 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 in the unit of charges.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore city, the bill sponsor, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday that she has advocated for some kind of partial expungement since 2004, but that the unit rule continues to be a barrier.
“We have made so much progress in Maryland with expunging records,” she said. “This category is the only category of non-convictions that we still don’t allow to have expunged.”
Serious charges, even if they were dropped or resulted in a not-guilty verdict, hinder people who are attempting to get jobs, find housing or seek education, often because the information is easily accessible in the public-facing Maryland Judiciary Case Search, according to witnesses who testified before the committee Wednesday.
“It is so easy to get a record, yet it is almost impossible to get rid of or move past that record,” said Caryn York, chief executive officer of the Job Opportunities Task Force.
Individuals who want to remove charges they were not convicted of from their record are frustrated when they learn they cannot, according to Nicole Hanson, executive director of Out for Justice Inc.
“You guys have no idea how often I get phone calls and visits to my office from upstanding citizens who are deciding to get connected to housing, who have an opportunity to get a job, who want to open things like day care centers and the like,” Hansen said. “This unit rule is the topic of discussion in my office on a weekly basis. … People cannot understand if an offense is eligible for expungement why they can’t get it off their record.”
The Maryland Judiciary and prosecutors have opposed partial expungement in the past over concerns about the feasibility of implementing it and the increased workload that would be involved.
This year’s cross-filed bills attempt to address concerns about the difficulty local jurisdictions might have in removing or redacting references to certain crimes in a record in which they may be entwined with non-expungeable offenses in the statement of facts or another narrative about the incident.
If it is impractical to partially expunge a record because the narrative of the case involves both expungeable and non-expungeable offenses, the bills instruct the court to order the removal of the eligible charges from the judiciary’s website. The local jurisdiction where the charges originated could keep a written record and limit inspection of it to legitimate criminal justice purposes.
District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said Wednesday that partial expungement is complex and difficult, involving multiple databases and physical records.
“If we could do this, I wouldn’t have any objection to this bill,” he said.
Morrissey said the judiciary’s staff does have the capability to “shield” non-convictions in Case Search, which has been the subject of past legislation.
“With advances that we’ve made … we believe we can block a charge now from Case Search,” he said.
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said that it sounded as if the judiciary has made “tremendous strides” and that shielding charges in Case Search would address many of advocates’ concerns.
But Carter said that though she appreciates the efforts, shielding is at best a temporary solution until true partial expungement is possible.
“Shielding from public view is simply just not good enough when it comes to non-convictions,” she said.
William Katcef, a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office, said in cases where defendants enter a plea agreement, a statement of facts to support the plea is read into the record and accepted by a judge. Katcef, testifying on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said he opposes allowing a defendant to expunge charges supported by facts on the record.
House Bill 1336 is scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on March 10.