Under a bill now on the governor’s desk, Maryland’s public Case Search website would no longer display criminal charges that did not end with a conviction.
The bill passed the Maryland General Assembly shortly before legislators adjourned last week.
The bill also establishes a workgroup to study the issue of “partial expungement,” which would eliminate records of non-convictions altogether. Currently, the “unit rule” prohibits expunging a non-conviction if one or more charges in the same incident resulted in a conviction.
Advocates have argued that individuals who may have been found guilty or pleaded guilty to a lesser offense are judged by the more serious crimes they were charged with — and that this can cost them jobs, housing and education opportunities.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore city, sponsored the Senate version of the bill and has been pushing for the expungement of non-convictions — including charges that are dismissed or dropped or that result in an acquittal — since 2004.
“These are the only area of non-convictions that remain unexpungeable in the state,” Carter said. “This is ridiculous that we’re holding people hostage on non-convictions.”
Carter called the House of Delegates version of the legislation, which ultimately passed on March 18, “a step” toward the goal of fully expunging non-convictions. The legislation, which has a Jan. 1 effective date, prohibits Maryland Judiciary Case Search from referring to the existence of records of a charge that resulted in acquittal, dismissal or nolle prosequi.
Case Search is used as a quick background check by some, but Carter said hiding charges online is just one step.
“It’s still not the best step that we can take,” she said.
Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, praised Carter’s efforts and said the organization has been fighting for partial expungement for at least 15 years.
“At the end of the day, we’re happy that it got through,” she said of the House bill. “We’re really, really bummed that the Senate version didn’t get through.”
York said employers are increasingly looking beyond Case Search and instead are using private companies to conduct background checks or are asking individuals to pay the state to obtain their full criminal histories. She said her organization would closely monitor the workgroup.
Del. Erek Barron, D-Prince George’s, sponsored House Bill 1336, which ultimately passed both chambers. He said he called the bill “a fairness and workforce development bill” when presenting it to fellow legislators.
“My hope is that this removes some barrier to employment, housing and other basic needs that people have who may have had a run-in with the criminal justice system,” Barron said.
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.
A spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary declined to comment on the bill’s passage Tuesday, but District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey and State Court Administrator Pamela Harris told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month that while courts can block individual charges from appearing in Case Search, partial expungement would require significant manpower to go through files and remove references to certain charges.
Carter, who said legislative leaders “don’t want to defy the will of the Judiciary,” noted that while she respects the judges and administrators she wants to push them on the issue after years of being told partial expungement was impossible or cost-prohibitive.
York said it was part of the Job Opportunities Task Force’s goal to push back on claims by the Judiciary that partial expungement is not possible.
“If anything, our focus this year was to really push the Judiciary and to really push the General Assembly to move past a response that has just been able to suffice for so long, and that response was, ‘We just can’t do it,’” she said.