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Path to clean slate not so easy

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When one woman fills out a job application, she no longer has to check a box to say she has been convicted of a crime and then explain why she pulled a chunk of hair off the head of another woman more than a decade ago.

That incident occurred 16 years ago, but until recently the woman guilty of the crime was legally required to disclose it on a job application. But under new state guidelines that allow people to erase certain convictions, she doesn’t have to disclose that information anymore.

Since the guidelines went into effect in July, about 28 people have filed paperwork in Johnson County courts trying to get convictions removed from their record.

People convicted of misdemeanors and some felony charges can petition to have their criminal records sealed if they haven’t committed other crimes since then and met other requirements. But the process can cost thousands of dollars in some cases, between attorney fees and court costs. The guidelines also can be difficult to understand; and if someone doesn’t submit the right paperwork, the request will be turned down; and people aren’t allowed to apply again for three years.

Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper has no problem with allowing people to seal their records if they have met the requirements, but he does not think the law is well-written. Lawyers have had trouble figuring out all of the paperwork that needs to be submitted with each case.

People might have only one chance to show proof they paid any court fines or fees or paperwork that they fulfilled probation requirements. A person can make one clerical mistake and have to wait three years to file another petition.

The initial state guidelines did not allow people to get a second chance to file a petition to have their records sealed if they make a mistake, such as omitting proof of paying fines.

But revisions that took effect last month allow someone to file another petition three years later, according to the Indiana Bar Association.

Most people filing to have their records expunged locally have been successful. For example, one man no longer has to disclose that he was arrested for drunken driving nine years ago.

About 20 percent of the people who have asked to have their records erased have had their petitions rejected. One man was not able to remove a 1977 conviction for marijuana use from his record after he failed to provide his records from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. A man convicted of burglary in 1995 could not get that offense removed from his record because he failed to show proof that he paid restitution. One man’s public intoxication conviction was not sealed because it occurred only one year ago.

State guidelines allow people to seal records of convictions if they haven’t committed any other crimes and enough time has passed. For example, someone convicted of check deception or public intoxication, a misdemeanor, can ask to erase those crimes from their record after five years. Some low-level felonies such as theft or drunken driving require an eight-year waiting period.

“It’s actually a very simple process to file, but it’s a complicated process to figure out which process you need to do,” Franklin attorney Mike Kyle said.

Each crime has a different set of requirements that have to be met before that offense can be removed from someone’s record, which can be confusing for people trying to figure out if they are eligible. For example, a misdemeanor conversion and a Class D felony burglary conviction are similar crimes. But the conversion conviction has a five-year waiting period, compared with eight years for the burglary charge, Kyle said.

The legal fees to file a petition depend on how much paperwork is being tracked down by attorneys. The older the case, the more difficult it can be to find some items, such as proof from a probation officer that the requirements of a probation sentence were met, Kyle said.

Finding that paperwork is sometimes the most difficult part of the process to erase records. The prosecutor’s office can file an objection to someone’s petition. But the office mostly would file objections only when requirements have not been met, such as if necessary paperwork has not been provided, Cooper said.

“We don’t try to take advantage of people,” he said, “but we still have to follow the statute.”

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