Thursday, September 18, 2008

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.