More to clear criminal records: Changed law brings in requests of expungement

A change to state law is allowing people to stop a past arrest or conviction from showing up when they apply for a job or to rent an apartment.

And in the years since the law was changed, more and more people are asking to use the process as word of it spreads, local officials said.

But officials also said the law could use another update, a task the county prosecutor hopes legislators will take up in future sessions.

In 2013, state law was changed to allow people to ask for an expungement of a criminal conviction. Since then, the number of people using that process has continued to increase, and the county is set to hit another high in 2017, according to local court statistics. Nearly 150 people sought to have their criminal record expunged in 2016, court records show.

Go into Johnson County Magistrate Court on a Thursday, and the schedule is packed with just those requests, Judge Doug Cummins said.

The new law gives people who have been convicted of a crime an option they never had before: to get that conviction removed from their record so potential employers or landlords can’t see it.

Before the law changed, the only way to remove a conviction was to get it overturned, said Matthew Solomon, a local defense attorney who is routinely handling two to four expungement cases at any time.

Now, the request has to be filed with the court. Under the new law, the majority of cases don’t allow for a judge to even turn down the request as long as it meets the standards under the law, such as if someone was convicted of driving while intoxicated and has waited long enough and not been arrested again, Cummins said.

For misdemeanors, that means waiting five years after the conviction, staying out of trouble since then and proving all fines and court fees were paid, Solomon said. For felonies — and only certain ones are eligible — people have to wait eight years, and also stay out of trouble and prove they paid their fees, Solomon said.

But in other cases, the judge is asked to make the decision, and can consider the details of the case and the person’s record since then, Cummins said.

The law isn’t perfect, officials agree.

For Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper, the new law is a concern because it doesn’t actually erase the person’s record. Instead, it allows them to say on a job application, for example, that they have never been convicted of a crime — even if they have, he said. But the record still is there and can be found by police, prosecutors and judges, and can be considered in a future criminal case, he said.

His concern is that the information should be able to be found by employers, such as if someone with a past driving while intoxicated arrest applies to be a bus driver or if someone was convicted of stealing from a past employer and applies for a new job, if it isn’t going to be erased from their record, he said.

At the same time, if someone was arrested and no criminal charge was ever filed, they should be able to remove that from their record, and that is no longer an option under the law, he said. Cooper believes that should be automatic under the law, he said.

Cooper has asked state lawmakers to consider changing the law to eliminate those two issues, he said.

Solomon agrees with Cooper, but said he is glad the law allows people some option so that a past criminal conviction doesn’t stop them from getting a job or a home.

“The statute is somewhat imperfect. But it gives people relief in terms of getting better employment, rewarding people who stayed out of trouble, people who became rehabilitated,” he said.

“As a defense attorney, we will take what we can get.”

By the numbers

Here is a look at the number of expungement cases filed locally since state law changed:

2014;6

2015;97

2016;143

2017 (through Sept. 30);123

SOURCE: Johnson County court administrator

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.