Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rhode Island House of Representatives OKs bill to destroy criminal records

Despite objections from the attorney general, the state police and the governor, the House voted 46 to 17 for a bill to quash and destroy the records of criminal cases in which the accused was given a deferred sentence, usually in exchange for sparing the state a trial by pleading no contest or guilty to a crime.

The bill sailed through the House with no debate yesterday after a heated — but short-circuited debate earlier this week — in which proponents assured their colleagues it was aimed at helping people remove from their records youthful indiscretions that were keeping them from moving ahead in life, school and jobs, and opponents noted the bill goes much further than the state’s existing expungement law in that it is not limited to nonviolent crimes by first-time offenders.

Beyond that, critics argued that it could be used as a legal club to try to prevent newspapers from publishing facts that the public already knows about crimes — or perhaps should know — if they involve candidates for a job, including public office. Current state law bars people with certain felony convictions from obtaining state licenses to work in nursing, social work and auto repair: this would provide a way around that.

“So now we are rewriting history and telling the newspaper they can’t refer to something that everybody knows about?” Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown, asked rhetorically.

Current law already allows the expungement of a single nonviolent offense from the record of a first-time offender five years after he or she has completed a sentence for a misdemeanor, or 10 years after completing a sentence for a felony.

Despite efforts over the years by the minority community, the criminal defense bar and the gun lobby to shorten the waiting periods, this law remains intact and was used to remove 4,360 misdemeanors and 625 felonies from the public record last year alone, and 28,417 criminal cases from the public record since 2000.

Yesterday’s bill was sparked by a November decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court on the treatment of cases in which the admitted criminal had been given a deferred prison sentence, as was the case in a number of high-profile cases involving accused stalkers, embezzlers, an admitted accomplice to a gunpoint robbery in Waterplace Park who traded testimony for a reduced sentence, one of the admitted co-conspirators in the Lincoln bribery scandal and at least one child molester.

The court’s decision centered on two admitted criminals foiled by a judge in their efforts to get their records expunged. One had pleaded no contest to second-degree robbery; the other to a drug-possession charge. Both received deferred sentences. They both appealed to the high court after a judge ruled them ineligible for expungement: the first because he had committed a violent crime, and the second because she got into further trouble.

“Because they never were actually sentenced,” their lawyer argued that “they had not been convicted of any offense and therefore all records involving their arrest and plea should be erased.” But the Supreme Court disagreed. Since “a plea of nolo contendere is an implied confession of guilt,” the court said “it follows that such a plea constitutes a conviction for purposes of weighing who is and is not eligible for expungement, even when it has been followed by a deferred sentence.”

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