Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wyoming loses federal gun case

A federal appeals court in Denver has ruled against Wyoming in a lawsuit over a state law that seeks to allow people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to regain their gun rights.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that the procedure spelled out in Wyoming law fails to expunge the criminal record of people convicted of domestic violence.

The ruling is a victory for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency had informed Wyoming that if it persisted in using the state law, the federal government would no longer accept Wyoming concealed weapons permits as a substitute for instant background checks for gun purchases.

Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said Wednesday that he's unlikely to suggest that the state ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

"We now have two federal courts that have rejected Wyoming's position," Salzburg said, adding that the Supreme Court reviews only a small number of cases.

Salzburg said his office planned to put out a statement on Wednesday advising people who have gone through the procedure to expunge their misdemeanor records of the court's decision. He said the ruling means that if such people now have guns, they "may be viewed by federal authorities as being in violation of federal firearms law."

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division in Washington represented the BATF in the lawsuit. Charles Miller, spokesman for the division, said Wednesday the office had no comment on the ruling.

The 2004 Wyoming law at the center of the lawsuit allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to petition in state court to expunge their conviction and restore their gun rights. The law requires that petitioners must have completed probation, and it limits people to just one such request.

The Wyoming Attorney General's Office said last year that Wyoming courts expunged 63 misdemeanor convictions from 2005 through last October. Salzburg said Wednesday that only one person with an expunged record had gone on to receive a state-issued concealed weapons permit and said at least two other such applications are pending.

The BATF objected to a provision of the state law that specified that an "expunged" conviction would be kept by the state Division of Criminal Investigation and could be used to enhance penalties for future domestic violence convictions. The BATF said that conviction records weren't truly expunged if they were kept on the books for any purpose.

Federal law requires gun dealers to perform an instant background check of prospective purchasers through a national database unless the buyer has a state-issued concealed weapon permit. The BATF said Wyoming's law could allow people to get a concealed weapons permit even though they wouldn't qualify under federal standards.

Wyoming sued the BATF over its threat to reject all Wyoming-issued concealed carry permits as a substitute for background checks. In May 2007, U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson of Wyoming rejected the state's claims that the federal agency had arbitrarily rejected the state law.

The state's lawsuit has attracted national attention from groups on both sides of the gun-control debate at both the federal district court and appellate court levels.

Daniel Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington said Wednesday his group regards Tuesday's appeals court ruling as a victory for public safety. The center had filed papers in court in support of the BATF's position.

"We should not make it easier for dangerous abusers to get firearms," Vice said. "And we've seen that domestic violence abuse cases are extremely dangerous when guns are involved."

The Gun Owners Foundation and the National Rifle Association had filed papers in court supporting the state's position.

Herb Titus, lawyer for the Gun Owners Foundation, said Wednesday his group is disappointed with the appeals court decision.

"We think it's wrong," Titus said. "We think this is a matter of state right -- that Congress intended that the states have the right to define expungement according to state policy and state purposes, and obviously, the 10th Circuit disagrees."

Mike Blonigen, Casper district attorney and president of the Wyoming Prosecutors Association, said Wednesday that his office has been advising people interested in petitioning for restoration of their gun rights that a decision on the case was pending. The state law requires prosecutors to review restoration petitions.

Blonigen said the Wyoming Legislature may choose to change the law to address whether conviction records are truly expunged.

"I think it's one of these situations, where if you're going to call it an expungement, it has to have all the characteristics of an expungement, and frankly this law didn't get there," Blonigen said. "You can't say you're going to take it away for these purposes, but not for these three purposes over there."

Minnesota Supreme Court upholds limits set on sealing criminal records

Limit set on sealing criminal records, but expungement attempts still urged

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that district courts do not have the authority to seal criminal records beyond the courts themselves — a decision that may be bad for defendants but good for public-records advocates.

The case began in 1992, when a defendant identified as S.L.H. pleaded guilty to fifth-degree felony possession of cocaine in Robbinsdale. She was 20. After three years, the charge was dropped to a misdemeanor.

In 2000, a petition for expungement, or sealing, of her record, was filed, but the district court denied the request.

She tried again in 2006. S.L.H. argued that she was a single parent of four children and wanted to be better equipped to support her family. She explained she hoped to become a Head Start Teacher or a medical assistant — but neither job would be open to her without expungement of her criminal records.

Hennepin County District Court agreed. The court found in July 2006 that the benefit of expungement to S.L.H. outweighed the disadvantage to the public from eliminating her record and ordered all judicial records of the offense be sealed.

But the lower court also said it did not have the authority to order nonjudicial records sealed. That means that records at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension still would be open to anyone who wished to see them.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court, and Thursday's Supreme Court decision basically affirms that.

But the decision seems toleave room for interpretation, said Mark Haase, staff attorney for the Council on Crime and Justice, which filed a brief on behalf of S.L.H.

It says granting her access to employment is not "essential to the existence, dignity and function of a court" and that granting expungement of records outside the judicial branch is therefore not within its authority.

But the court seemed to suggest there might be cases that are, citing one in which charges were dismissed.

"The jury, so to speak, is not completely out on it," Haase said. "We don't want to discourage people from trying to get expungements, because the opinion is not clear. I want people who may have a shot at getting a remedy to pursue that."

He said it's vitally important for people to have a chance at a clean slate.

"The vast majority of people who are trying to get expungements are not serious offenders," Haase said. "They're trying to move on with their life; they can't get a job. Do we really want people to carry that with them and (have it) be a hindrance to getting employment and housing for that long?"

The Supreme Court points out, however, that the Legislature has determined, as outlined in the Minnesota Data Practices Act, that certain law enforcement data are public.

"The expungement of S.L.H.'s criminal records held outside the judicial branch would effectively override the legislative determination that some of these records be kept open to the public," the court wrote.