We have recently revised and brought up to date the 50-state chart comparing laws on judicial sealing and expungement. This chart provides an overview of the national landscape of laws authorizing courts to restrict public access to criminal records. The chart summaries are illustrated by color-coded maps, and explained in greater detail in the state “profiles” of relief mechanisms that have been part of the Restoration of Rights Resource since that project began in 2004. We hope this research will provide a useful tool for civil and criminal practitioners, policy advocates, and government officials.
A brief overview of research methodology and conclusions follows.
A criminal record severely restricts access to many opportunities and benefits that can be indispensable to leading a law-abiding life. Unwarranted discrimination based on criminal record was recognized as an urgent public policy problem by President Obama when he established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse. In the past decade, as the collateral consequences of conviction have increased in severity, state legislatures across the country have been actively exploring ways to set reasonable limits on the use of criminal records for noncriminal justice purposes, consistent with public safety. One of the most popular measures involves restricting public access to criminal records through measures most frequently described as “expungement” or “sealing.” Our recent report on “second chance” legislation identified 27 states that just since 2013 have given their courts at least some authority to limit access to records.
At the same time, however, judicial authority to close the record of concluded criminal cases remains quite limited, with only a dozen states authorizing their courts to restrict public access to a substantial number of felony convictions. The fact that nine of these 12 states have had broad sealing schemes in place for many years underscores how difficult it is to make much legislative progress in a risk-averse environment where criminal background checking has become big business.
Earlier this month eight judges of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit blocked enforcement of a federal gun control law in two cases involving Pennsylvanians convicted of non-violent misdemeanors many years ago, invoking the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The appeals court affirmed lower court decisions upholding the constitutional right of Daniel Binderup and Julio Suarez to possess firearms despite the fact that they are barred by federal statute from doing so. Seven other judges of the appeals court thought the Second Amendment should never be applied on a case-by-case basis to convicted individuals, and proposed that the federal statutory bar should determine the constitutional issue. The 174-page appellate decision in Binderup v. Holder has been widely reported but only in the most general terms, and not always entirely accurately.
Other as-applied Second Amendment challenges to firearms dispossession statutes are percolating through the courts. For example, Hamilton v. Palozzi will be argued next month in the Fourth Circuit, offering another opportunity for a court to hold that people convicted of non-violent crimes should not lose their firearms rights, there under a state dispossession statute rather than a federal one. Because the constitutional issues may shortly be before the Supreme Court for resolution, it seemed worth taking a closer look at the Binderup holding.
Recently I was speaking with Matt Benjamin, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York, who told me about a very important pro bono effort that he and his colleagues at the firm launched two years ago to serve clients in the “Alternatives to Incarceration” programs of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. While the clients are generally represented in their criminal cases by public defenders, they frequently need help with a variety of civil issues, from employment and housing to immigration and family law issues.
Because I think this path-breaking effort should serve as a model for other law firms and law schools around the country — just as the Eastern District’s ATI programs should serve as a model for other federal courts — I wanted to provide more information about it here.
On July 22, 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down a series of executive orders issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe restoring voting and other civil rights to more than 200,000 convicted individuals. See Howell v. McAuliffe (Va. 2016). The court, in a 4-to-3 decision, disputed the governor’s assertion that his restoration power was absolute under the state’s Constitution. “We respectfully disagree,” the majority justices wrote. “The clemency power may be broad, but it is not absolute.” Governor McAuliffe responded to the court’s action by promising to restore the vote on an individual basis to everyone affected by his orders, starting with the 13,000 who had already registered to vote. More details of the reaction to the court’s ruling are reported here.
The Virginia court’s decision is interesting for what it may tell us about the possibility of class-wide grants of clemency, whether full pardon or sentence commutation, under the president’s pardon power. In finding limits on the governor’s restoration power under the Virginia constitution, the court relied upon two other constitutional provisions that have no analogue in the U.S. Constitution.
A new article in the Stanford Law Review discusses the radically different forms of punishment in the United States and Europe, which its author attributes at least in part to differing moral visions of wrongdoing and wrongdoers. In Two Cultures of Punishment, Joshua Kleinfeld argues that while Americans tend to regard serious offenders as “morally deformed people rather than ordinary people who have committed crimes,” European cultures “affirm even the worst offenders’ claims to social membership and rights.”
Kleinfeld illustrates this “divergent moral vision” by the very different approach European countries take to collateral consequences. (The other two areas discussed in the article are lengthy prison terms and capital punishment). Whereas in this country people convicted of crime are subject to a lifetime of legal restrictions and social stigma analogous to older forms of civil death, and are effectively consigned to a kind of “internal exile,” in Europe people who have committed a crime benefit from numerous measures to encourage their reintegration.
Have we been wrong in trying to fit the round peg of collateral consequences into the square hole of punishment? Sandra Mayson, a Fellow at the Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says yes. In an article published in the Notre Dame Law Review, Mayson challenges the view of some scholars that mandatory collateral consequences should be considered part of the court-imposed sentence, and thus potentially limited by procedural due process and ex post facto principles. For starters, the Supreme Court has told us that dog won’t hunt.
But that doesn’t mean that collateral consequences should be immune from constitutional constraint. Mayson proposes instead to analyze collateral consequences as “preventive risk regulation” under principles developed in the administrative law context. Specifically, she argues that a severe collateral consequence (such as sex offender registration) may be justified only if it can be shown to serve a public safety purpose in a particular case.
Vermonter Rich Cassidy, who chairs the CCRC Board, drew our attention to this extraordinary story of courage and compassion and plain good sense in the Green Mountain State. Published last week in the Vermont weekly Seven Days, it tells the story of LaMoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr.’s decision to take a chance on Timothy Szad, described as “a gifted carpenter and diligent worker” who is also “Lamoille County’s most notorious criminal.”
Here are a few introductory paragraphs to a story well worth reading in full.
In 2000, Szad stalked and sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the southern Vermont woods. He went to jail for his crime and served the maximum sentence. But his punishment didn’t end when he got out, in 2013. His release was widely publicized, which generated something of a vigilante reaction. So he embarked on a cross-country journey in search of a new home. When no place would have him, he wound up back in Vermont — this time, in sleepy Hyde Park.
On April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring civil rights to more than 200,000 individuals once convicted of felonies. His courageous action is welcome and long overdue, and there are now only three states nationwide that permanently disenfranchise people based on a felony conviction. The Governor’s press release promises new restoration orders on a regular monthly basis as additional individuals become eligible — the model followed in Iowa between 2005 and 2011, when convicted individuals were restored to the franchise under a similar executive process before it was discontinued by a Republican governor.
The one sour note on an otherwise happy occasion was the pervasive use of the word “felon” in print and media accounts to describe the beneficiaries of Governor McAuliffe’s action. This ugly stigmatizing label has been broadly criticized as counterproductive to reintegration efforts, perpetuating stereotypes about people with a criminal record and encouraging discrimination against them. While the Governor himself was careful with his language, not a single major newspaper reporting on his action could resist including the word in its headline. Read more
Federal courts are frequently asked to take into account the collateral consequences of conviction in determining what sentence to impose under the criteria in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It is generally permissible for them to do so, and in line with current proposals of national law reform organizations. At the same time, courts must guard against the risk of socioeconomic bias favoring more privileged defendants who have the most to lose in the civil sphere, and who are likely to enjoy more vigorous and effective advocacy around collateral consequences.
The following discussion first reviews a federal court’s general obligation to understand the collateral consequences that apply in a particular case, and to ensure that a defendant considering a guilty plea has been adequately advised about them. It then reviews post-Booker case law approving below-guideline sentences based on the severe collateral penalties applicable to a particular defendant, such as loss of employment, extraordinary family circumstances, sex offender registration, and even reputational harm (“the stigma of conviction”). Finally, it discusses cases in which courts of appeal have refused to approve deep sentencing discounts based on collateral consequences in circumstances suggesting a bias favoring middle-class defendants. Read more
On April 7 a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard argument in United States v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe I). At issue in that case is whether U.S. District Judge John Gleeson acted within his authority when he expunged the conviction of a woman he had sentenced some 14 years earlier, based on his finding that her conviction had proved an insurmountable bar to the jobs in home health care for which she was qualified. Judge Gleeson directed that the government seal the records of Ms.Doe’s conviction, stating that he had sentenced her “to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.” The government appealed, arguing that a federal court has no authority to expunge or seal a conviction record, particularly the record of a valid conviction. Briefs in the case can be viewed here.
The panel did not appear persuaded by the government’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life, 511 U.S. 375 (1994)(refusing ancillary jurisdiction to enforce state law civil claims), meant that federal courts have no jurisdiction to expunge the record of a federal criminal case. The import of the government’s argument would be to overrule the Circuit’s leading expungement case from the 1970s, United States v. Schnitzer, 567 F.2d 536 (2d Cir. 1977), which held that federal courts have ancillary jurisdiction to grant expungement on equitable grounds in extraordinary circumstances. No judge on the panel expressed any support for overruling Schnitzer, and the government seemed reluctant to ask for it. At the same time, Schnitzer involved expungement of an arrest that the government did not pursue, not a valid conviction. That distinction seemed to have some appeal for one judge on the panel, who suggested that the holding in Schnitzer might not apply where conviction as opposed to arrest is at issue.