The Wisconsin statute that allows courts to expunge certain conviction records of youthful offenders, Wis. Stat. § 973.015, provides that the court must make its decision about whether to expunge at the time of sentencing, conditioned upon the defendant successfully completing his or her sentence.
Often, young defendants receive a probationary term for crimes that are eligible for expungement (all misdemeanors, as well as certain felonies in the lower levels of severity). Prior case law has established that, although expungement is conditional upon successful completion of probation in this situation, the court may not defer ruling on the expungement request.
In State v. Hemp, the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified that expungement occurs automatically if the statutory conditions are met, and that a defendant is not required after completing probation to apply to the sentencing court for entry of the expungement order. Importantly, the court also provided some guidance regarding the legal effect of expungement that will be of interest to job applicants who have had a previous conviction expunged.
In a recent national study of case processing in the nation’s misdemeanor courts, Wall Street Journal reporters Gary Fields and John Emschwiller document how “blindingly swift” justice is for the “millions of Americans charged each year with misdemeanor crimes”:
In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or less, usually with a guilty plea, according to a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. In Detroit, court statistics show, a district judge on an average day has over 100 misdemeanor cases on his or her docket–or one every four minutes. In Miami, public defenders often hardly have time to introduce themselves to their misdemeanor clients before the cases are over. . . . In a Houston courtroom one day recently, defendants–sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of up to nine . . . , pleaded guilty, received their sentences and got a “good luck” from the judge in less than 30 seconds.
It appears that very little has changed in the forty years since the Supreme Court in Argersinger v. Hamlin bemoaned the assembly line that characterized the processing of misdemeanor offenses at that time. The Court noted:
Wherever the visitor looks at the system, he finds great numbers of defendants being processed by harassed and overworked officials. Suddenly it becomes clear that, for most defendants in the criminal process, there is scant regard for them as individuals. They are numbers on dockets, faceless ones to be processed and sent on their way.” (emphasis added)
The Argersinger Court noted that uncounseled defendants were pleading guilty, often at their initial appearance before a judge, and that there were harmful consequences that flowed from convictions of even so-called minor crimes. To remedy the national crisis in misdemeanor courts that existed even in the 1970s, the Court held that the Gideon right to Read more
Amy Meek just sent us her colorfully titled and important new article recently published in the Ohio State Law Journal, about the collateral consequences imposed by municipal and county ordinances. As far as I know, this is the first serious effort to address consideration of conviction in connection with opportunities and benefits controlled at the local level. As the abstract below suggests, many types of entrepreneurial opportunities likely to be attractive to people with a criminal record are subject to governmental regulation below the state level. Because these local ordinances and regulations are rarely included in collections of state collateral consequences, they are invisible to defendants and unavailable to their counsel and the court at the time of plea or sentencing. Only in a few large municipalities, notably New York City, are criminal justice practitioners even aware of this locally created and administered system of restrictions and exclusions. For example, with the exception of the District of Columbia, municipal and county rules and regulations are not included in the NIJ-funded National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC). The potential for interaction between state and local authorities is a particularly intriguing subject that Professor Meek explores in her recommendations for legislative reform.
Here is the abstract:
Kelley Williams-Bolar was a single mother in Akron Ohio, a teacher’s aide who was studying to become a teacher herself. Her story made headlines in 2011, when she was accused of misusing her father’s home address to enroll her two young daughters in a public school they were not entitled to attend. After her own home was burglarized, Kelley had enrolled the girls in their grandfather’s school district, so they could spend each afternoon after school safely at their grandfather’s house. To make this possible she had signed a “grandparent affidavit” saying that the girls lived with their grandfather. The new school district ultimately rejected the affidavit, and she withdrew the girls from their new school at the end of the school year.
Ohio’s “grandparent affidavit” form contains a printed warning, advising that anyone who submits a false affidavit can be charged with “Falsification, a first degree misdemeanor.” But that warning gave no hint of what would actually happen to Kelley. Eighteen months after her daughters left the new school, the district attorney charged Kelley with felony Grand Theft, claiming she had “stolen” tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tuition for her children.
Particularly given Kelley’s career aspiration to be a teacher, her defense lawyer could have made good use of a new online resource called CIVICC (Civil Impacts of Criminal Convictions), a computerized compendium of state collateral consequences linked to the crimes that trigger them. (Kelley’s felony conviction was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor by Governor John Kasich, high level intervention that cannot be counted on to substitute for effective advocacy.)
At the CIVICC website, counsel in a case like Kelley’s could run a quick search using the keyword “theft,” and learn right away that conviction on the Grand Theft charge would expose her to 509 possible collateral consequences (“civil impacts”) under Ohio law, burdens she would bear long after her criminal sentence was complete.
An earlier post highlighted the dilemma that some young Wisconsin defendants face because of the narrow scope of the law on sealing conviction records. The court can seal the record of certain convictions, but the record of dismissed charges remains accessible to the public in a searchable online database. Therefore, the dismissal can increase the potential for prospective employers to learn of an applicant’s legal troubles.
Now the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has held that the court may not seal the record of a non-criminal violation. Kenosha County v. Frett, 2014AP6 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 19, 2014). The appellate court reviewed the statutory language and concluded that references to 1) the maximum term of imprisonment for sealable offenses; 2) “completion of the sentence”; and 3) “certificate of discharge” from the “detaining or probationary authority” showed that the procedure applies only to criminal convictions.
For a young woman cited in 2012 in Kenosha County for underage drinking, now a college student in New York, the decision means that the record of her conviction for the amended charge of littering remains publicly accessible. If she had been convicted of drug possession or fraud she might have been able to close the book on this episode.
Although the Frett case did not involve the reduction of criminal charges, the decision means that some defendants might prefer to have a sealed criminal conviction than to have a public record of a reduced, non-criminal charge (the public record of the reduced charge also shows the original charges).
The Frett decision may be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and policymakers are considering statutory amendments to expand judicial authority to seal records. For now, however, non-criminal dispositions and dismissals are publicly accessible in situations in which some criminal convictions can be sealed.
In the general election on November 4, 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47 with almost 60% of the vote. The Proposition will impact a wide range of sentences in California courts, and in the federal courts as well. A number of crimes that could be, and often were, charged in California as felonies, such as commercial burglary, forgery, grand theft, and certain drug crimes, will now be charged as misdemeanors, so that their effect on a person’s criminal history will be substantially diminished. A whole range of state felony drug offenses that could result in enhanced sentences in federal drug cases, even life imprisonment, or career offender status under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, have overnight become relatively harmless misdemeanors.
Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences. This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced. Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison). These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case. The record can then be expunged.
The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated. While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community. For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.
As the Supreme Court recently acknowledged in Lafler v. Cooper (2012), American criminal justice “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Nowhere is that statement truer than in the lower courts, where millions of misdemeanor arrests are resolved, or, to use the lingo of the criminal court, “disposed of,” without even a whiff of a trial.
In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” Michelle Alexander raised the prospect of organizing people to refuse to plea bargain. Professor Jenny Roberts takes a cue from Alexander and manages to be even more rebellious. In Crashing the Misdemeanor System, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1089 (2013), she urges much more specifically that defense attorneys focus their energy on taking down extant misdemeanor systems that are best characterized as guilty plea mills.
Roberts argues that “the most minor misdemeanor conviction has serious implications for so many people,” and bemoans the fact that nevertheless most misdemeanors are given short shrift by all institutional players — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Her article is a clarion call for defense attorneys to reimagine, refocus and reinvigorate their misdemeanor practice, especially in an era of massive arrests for minor crimes made popular by Broken Windows, or quality-of-life, policing.
Which is a better outcome for a defendant in a criminal case: a) dismissal of all charges; or b) finding of guilt with probation or fine? Although most defendants and their attorneys would without hesitation choose option a), the choice is not always clear cut for some young defendants in in at least one Midwestern state.
So why might a former client say that “I can’t get a job because the charges against me were dismissed“? Or ask “ Why didn’t my lawyer tell me to plead guilty?” How is there a potential advantage of a conviction compared to dismissal?
In Wisconsin, computerized court records make it easy for the public, including prospective employers, to see public records of court cases, including charges that have been dismissed. However, a statute (Wis. Stat. sec. 973.015) allows for certain records to be sealed, depending upon the defendant’s age and the classification of the crime. However, the statute does not allow for sealing records in cases that resulted in dismissal, so they remain accessible through computerized searches.
Therefore, if a defendant is greatly concerned about the potential effect of the record on future employment (or other effect on reputation), an expunged record may be preferable to a public record of a dismissed charge. The defense attorney should at least be aware of the options and explain them to the client, rather than assuming which option the client would prefer. This example also shows that it is critically important for defense lawyers to be aware of the relief that may be available to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences.