New efforts to channel federal relief to small business owners with a record

After Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in funds for small business relief during COVID-19, the Small Business Administration (SBA) imposed restrictions on applicants with an arrest or conviction history.  These barriers, neither required nor contemplated by Congress, impede access to the two major relief programs for small businesses, nonprofits, and independent contractors during the COVID-19 crisis.  The two programs are the newly created Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the ramped-up Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

Three developments within the past week signal major pushback against or the possible reversal of at least some of these burdensome restrictions, which unfairly deny relief to worthy applicants.

First, at least 65 organizations submitted five public comments in opposition to the SBA’s criminal history restrictions for PPP relief.  Our organization joined 25 other groups in submitting a comment asking the SBA to rescind or modify the regulation on legal and policy grounds, citing recent court decisions that suggest the SBA may lack authority to impose record-based disqualifications at all.

These comments are the most recent expression of what has become a wave of bipartisan opposition to the SBA’s exclusionary policies, and growing coverage of the issues in the press.  We have been collecting relevant documents on our small business relief resource page.

Second, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin signaled in a recent conversation with key Senators that he may be open to easing restrictions on PPP applicants with felony records from the last five years.

Third, the HEROES Act, passed by the House on Friday, includes provisions that would significantly constrain the SBA’s authority to deny applicants based on a record of arrest or conviction in both the PPP and EIDL programs.  If enacted into law, these provisions would mark a turning point in how federal law deals with discrimination based on criminal record.

We discuss these developments in detail after the jump.  Read more

11th Circuit declines to rehear decision upholding felony voting rights

Yesterday, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Florida’s petition to rehear en banc a decision from a three-judge panel, which held on Feb. 19 that Florida may not deny the vote to people with felony convictions who have otherwise served their sentences, but may have outstanding court debt that they are unable to pay.

The panel decision concerns Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative Amendment 4, which restored the vote to state residents with felony convictions who have completed the terms of their sentence (murder and sex offense convictions are excluded).  The Florida Supreme Court held earlier this year that this required payment of fines, fees, and restitution.  The Eleventh Circuit panel, affirming a district court preliminary injunction, not only held that Florida may not deny the vote to those who can demonstrate that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding court debt, but it also called into question the very requirement that legal financial obligations must be satisfied in order to regain the vote.  Our full discussion of that decision is included below.

Absent intervention by the Supreme Court, Florida will be now be required to 1) implement the lower court’s preliminary injunction (which affected only the 17 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit); and 2) return to the district court for further litigation to address the rights of all other similarly situated Floridians, in accordance with the seeming broader directive of the appeals court.

Yesterday’s decision sends a strong signal to the states that currently impose similar financial barriers to restoring the franchise to those who have otherwise served their sentences.  But it also suggests that states should reconsider the many other troublesome barriers that governments impose on people who have otherwise served their sentences and are looking to fully participate in society, but still carry outstanding court debt.  In this vein, we have recently written about the denial of small business loans and ineligibility for expungement of non-conviction records because of outstanding fines and fees.

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11th Circuit upholds voting rights for Floridians unable to pay fines and fees

*Update (3/31/20): the Eleventh Circuit has denied Florida’s petition for rehearing en banc.

A decision yesterday from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a major victory for voting rights and criminal justice reform advocates.  It has the potential to dramatically expand access to the ballot for people with felony convictions in Florida.  The decision concerns Florida’s 2018 ballot initiative Amendment 4, which restored the vote to state residents who have completed the terms of their sentence, which includes fines, fees, and restitution imposed by the court.  The appeals court’s decision held that Florida may not deny the vote to individuals who can demonstrate that they are genuinely unable to pay outstanding court debt.  The decision also called into question the very requirement that financial penalties must be satisfied in order to regain the vote under Amendment 4, and potentially similar requirements in several other states.

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Broken records: criminal history errors cost jobs and housing

Ariel Nelson of the National Consumer Law Center has authored an important new report, Broken Records Redux, which describes how errors by criminal background check companies harm consumers seeking jobs and housing.  In particular, the report shows how background screeners continue to include sealed and expunged records in criminal background check reports, omit disposition information, misclassify offenses, mismatch the subjects of records, and include other misleading information.  The report also examines problems arising from the use of automated processes to evaluate prospective employees and tenants.

This report, a sequel to a 2012 NCLC report on criminal background errors, observes that since 2012 advocates and federal agencies have litigated many actions for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), leading to settlements and judgments requiring background screeners to reform their processes and pay millions in penalties and relief to consumers.  Despite these lawsuits, “companies continue to generate inaccurate reports that have grave consequences for consumers seeking jobs and housing.”  Based on these issues, the report recommends a broad array of legislative and regulatory changes at the federal and state level.  Accompanying the report is an article: Fertile Ground for FCRA Claims, which describes FCRA violations that can result from “inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated” background checks.

This new report also provides support for policy recommendations in our recently released Model Law on Non-Conviction Records, including restrictions on the dissemination of expunged records and records indicating no disposition by commercial providers of criminal records.

“For expungement and clean slate laws to succeed in removing barriers to employment and housing, they must take into account issues like background check reporting, data aggregation, and the use of stale data,” says Nelson, the author of the NCLC report. “I’m happy to see that CCRC’s Model Law on Non-Conviction Records provides guidance for addressing those issues.”

Model law proposes automatic expungement of non-conviction records

An advisory group drawn from across the criminal justice system has completed work on a model law that recommends automatic expungement of most arrests and charges that do not result in conviction.  Margaret Love and David Schlussel of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center served as reporters for the model law.  It is available in PDF and HTML formats.

“Many people may not realize how even cases that terminate in a person’s favor lead to lost opportunities and discrimination,” says Sharon Dietrich, Litigation Director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and one of the advisors of the model law project.  “Over the years, my legal aid program has seen thousands of cases where non-convictions cost people jobs.”

In proposing broad restrictions on access to and use of non-conviction records, the project aims to contribute to conversations underway in legislatures across the country about how to improve opportunities for people with a criminal record.  Already in 2019, states have enacted more than 130 new laws addressing the collateral consequences of arrest and conviction.  The group regards its model as the first step in a broader law reform initiative that will address conviction records as well.

Law enforcement officials make over 10 million arrests each year, a substantial percentage of which do not lead to charges or conviction.  Records of these arrests have become widely available as a result of digitized records systems and a new commerce in background screening and data aggregation.  These checks often turn up an “open” arrest or charges without any final disposition, which may seem to an employer or landlord more ominous than a closed case.

Very few states have taken steps to deal with the high percentage of records in repositories and court systems with no final disposition indicated.  Paul McDonnell, Deputy Counsel for New York’s Office of Court Administration and a project advisor, noted: “Criminal records that include no final disposition make it appear to the untrained eye that an individual has an open, pending case, which can have serious results for that person. New York has recently made legislative progress in addressing this problem, though more can be done.”

Current state and federal laws restricting access to and use of non-conviction records have limited application and are hard to enforce.  Eligibility criteria tend to be either unclear or restrictive, and petition-based procedures tend to be burdensome, expensive, and intimidating.  In recent years, lawmakers and reform advocates have expressed a growing interest in curbing the widespread dissemination and use of non-convictions, leading some states to simplify and broaden eligibility for relief, reduce procedural and financial barriers to access, and in a handful of states to make relief automatic.

Rep. Mike Weissman, a Colorado State Representative and model law project advisor, noted that Colorado has recently overhauled its laws on criminal records with broad bipartisan support.  “It is heartening to see similar reforms underway in other states, both red and blue, as well.  I commend the practitioners and researchers who helped formulate the model law for illustrating avenues for further progress in reducing collateral consequences.”

The model law would take this wave of criminal record reforms to a new level.  It recommends that expungement be immediate and automatic where all charges are terminated in favor of an accused.  Uncharged arrests should also be automatically expunged after a brief waiting period, as should dismissed or acquitted charges in cases where other charges result in conviction.  Cases that indicate no final disposition should also be expunged, unless there is indication that they are in fact pending.

The model law also recommends that expunged non-conviction records should not be used against a person in a range of criminal justice decisions, including by law enforcement agencies.  It would prohibit commercial providers of criminal background checks from disseminating expunged and dated non-conviction records, and civil decision-makers from considering them.

David LaBahn, President of the national Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, indicated that organization’s support for the model law, stating that the collateral consequences of non-convictions “do not serve to make the community safer,” and that “the current structures in place to expunge a non-conviction record can be confusing and difficult for the layperson to navigate alone.”

This model law sets the stage for jurisdictions to address record relief for convictions more generally, and its structure and principles can be brought to bear on that important work.

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center organized this model law project.  An early draft of the model law was discussed at an August 2019 Roundtable conference at the University of Michigan that was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation.  The model law report was supported by Arnold Ventures.

Read the model law in PDF or HTML.

CCRC urges Supreme Court to reverse Iowa expungement decision

*Update 2: On November 25, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition.

*Update (11/1/2019):  On September 23, 2019, the Supreme Court asked Iowa to respond to the cert petition.  Iowa’s response is here.  The petitioner’s reply is here.

On September 9, we filed an amicus brief at the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to review and reverse a decision out of Iowa that upholds wealth-based barriers to expungement.  We were joined by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.  At issue in the case is an Iowa law that bars a person from obtaining expungement of a dismissed or acquitted case if they owe any court fees in the case.  We point out the inequity of denying access to expungement based on socio-economic status:  “The irony of Iowa’s expungement law could not be clearer: a law that removes a hurdle to employment and economic security cannot be invoked by indigent individuals until outstanding costs and fees are paid to the state, effectively defeating the very purpose of providing expungement relief in the first place.”

This case arises from Jone Doe’s request in 2018 to expunge her dismissed criminal case from 2009.  But she still owes $550.38 for her court-appointed attorney, which she cannot afford to pay.  Doe argued the requirement to pay outstanding fees before obtaining expungement violates her equal protection rights under the constitution.  She pointed out that had she been able to hire a private attorney, she would be eligible for expungement, whether or not she owed attorney fees.  The lower court denied the request, finding that Doe “was made aware of reimbursing attorney fees and that expungement could not occur until all fees and assessed costs were paid.”  The Iowa Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, upheld the requirement, finding the state has a legitimate purpose “to encourage payment of court debt.”  On petition to the Supreme Court, we urge the Court to “grant certiorari and hold that one’s inability to pay court fees may not restrict access to statutorily-created expungement rights.”

We were represented by Ethan P. Fallon and Thomas M. Bondy of Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe LLP, and appreciate their work on this case.  The full amicus brief is available here.

Florida gov asks state court to resolve felony voting dispute

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has opened up a new front in the legal battle in Florida over voting rights for people with felony convictions.  DeSantis is asking the state supreme court for an opinion on whether Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018, restores the vote for people with outstanding court-ordered fines and fees.  DeSantis signed a law passed by the legislature saying no, but that law is being challenged in federal court.

Amendment 4

Amendment 4 automatically restored the right to vote for people convicted of felonies, other than murder or sexual offenses, upon “completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”   On June 28, 2019, DeSantis signed legislation (SB7066) that defines “completion of all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations (LFOs), including if a court has converted the LFOs to a civil lien.  Supporters of SB7066 point to a previous hearing before the Florida Supreme Court—regarding whether Amendment 4 should be on the 2018 ballot—where the Amendment’s sponsors told the Justices that completion of sentence includes court-ordered fines and costs.

In federal court, individuals and supporters of Amendment 4 have brought several challenges to SB7066 as violating the U.S. constitution on a variety of grounds.  One complaint argues that by disqualifying persons with outstanding LFOs, even if a person has no ability to pay and even if the court has converted an LFO to a civil lien, the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.  It also argues that the law burdens the fundamental right to vote, is an unconstitutional poll tax, infringes on free speech and association, and was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose.

UCLA law professor Beth Colgan recently published a survey of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement in the U.S.  She argues that while this widespread practice has been upheld in the lower courts under rational basis review, properly considered as a form of punishment it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Request for Opinion

On August 8, DeSantis filed a four-page letter asking the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on the meaning of the amendment.  “I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual’s right to vote under the Florida Constitution,” DeSantis states, asking the justices for “your interpretation of whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ encompasses financial obligations, such as fines, fees and restitution (‘legal financial obligations’ or ‘LFOs’) imposed by the court in the sentencing order.”

Appeals court invalidates EEOC criminal record guidance

On August 6, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the EEOC’s 2012 Enforcement Guidance on “Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  See Texas v. EEOC, No. 18-10638 (August 6, 2019).  Among other things, the Guidance prohibits consideration of blanket bans on hiring people with a criminal record, and requires nuanced case-by-case consideration as to whether a particular employment policy or action satisfies Title VII’s business necessity test.  The State of Texas claimed that the Guidance was an unauthorized substantive rule that would override numerous mandatory state law bars to hiring people with a felony conviction.  After rejecting various jurisdictional defenses based on lack of finality and standing, the court affirmed the district court’s holding invalidating the Guidance.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the appeals court’s ruling is its conclusion that the Guidance was a substantive rule that exceeded the EEOC’s authority to bind either public or private employers.  The district court had simply enjoined enforcement of the Guidance pending satisfaction of the notice and comment rulemaking requirements of the APA.  But the court of appeals went further, stating that “the text of Title VII and precedent confirm that EEOC lacks authority to promulgate substantive rules implementing Title VII.”  It therefore modified the district court’s injunction to strike the clause “until the EEOC has complied with the notice and comment requirements under the APA for promulgating an enforceable substantive rule.”  The court also “clarified” the terms of the injunction to say that “the EEOC and the Attorney General may not treat the Guidance as binding in any respect.”

While there may yet be further litigation over the Guidance, and while Congress may yet decide to act to bar record-based discrimination, it would appear that action to secure fair chance employment will now be with the states.

 

 

 

Diversion pleas qualify as convictions under federal background check law

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) prohibits companies engaged in criminal background screening from reporting records of arrests that are more than seven years old.  But since the 1990’s, there has been no time limit on reporting “records of convictions of crimes.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1681c(a)(2) and (5).  It might reasonably be assumed that criminal cases terminated in favor of the accused without a conviction (such as uncharged arrests, acquittals and dismissed charges) would fall into the first category, and so would not be reportable after seven years.  But we were recently alerted to a decision of the 7th Circuit from April that defined the term “conviction” in FCRA broadly to include any disposition involving a guilty plea, even if the charges are dismissed pursuant to a diversionary program with no resulting conviction under state law.

In Aldaco v. Rentgrow, a background screening company reported to Rafaela Aldaco’s prospective landlord that she had pleaded guilty to a battery charge twenty years earlier.  As a result, the landlord rejected Aldaco’s rental application.  Aldaco conceded her guilty plea, but pointed out that the court had deferred proceedings while she successfully completed a brief supervision sentence, after which the court had dismissed the battery charge without a judgment of conviction under Illinois law.  She sued the background screener, arguing that reporting her dated non-conviction disposition violated FCRA’s seven-year bar.

The court of appeals ruled against Aldaco, holding that the term “conviction” in FCRA must be defined by federal rather than state law, and that a guilty plea is all it takes to convert a state non-conviction disposition into one that qualifies as a conviction under federal law.  The leading Supreme Court case in this area is Dickerson v. New Banner Institute, 460 U.S. 103 (1983), which held that an Iowa man whose charges had been diverted and expunged after a guilty plea nonetheless had a “conviction” for purposes of the federal felon-in-possession law.  (Congress later revised the federal firearms law to incorporate state relief mechanisms into that law’s definition of conviction.  See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20).)  The term “conviction” in other federal laws has been similarly interpreted  to include state non-conviction dispositions that include a guilty plea.  See United States v. Gomez, 24 F.3d 924 (7th Cir. 1994)(“prior conviction” under § 841(b)(1) includes a plea to a probationary sentence that did not result in a final adjudication); Cleaton v. Department of Justice, 839 F.3d 1126, 1130 (Fed. Cir. 2016)(5 U.S.C. § 7371(b) requires that “[a]ny law enforcement officer who is convicted of a felony shall be removed from employment,” and this includes a guilty plea simpliciter); Harmon v. Teamsters Local 371, 832 F.2d 976 (7th Cir. 1987)(29 U.S.C. § 504(a) prohibits persons “convicted of” various felonies from serving as an officer, director, consultant, or in other leadership roles in labor organizations, and the term is defined by federal law and includes deferred judgments).  These decisions suggest that absent a contrary indication from Congress,  federal courts will count diversionary pleas as convictions under federal law, including FCRA.

Short of revising FCRA itself, it would appear that there are two ways to ensure that state non-conviction dispositions are not included in background checks as federal “convictions” after seven years.  One is to eliminate the requirement of a guilty plea from diversionary dispositions.  The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines show the way: the provisions on criminal history distinguish between “[d]iversion from the judicial process without a finding of guilt” which is not counted as part of an individual’s criminal history for sentencing purposes, and “a diversionary disposition resulting from a finding or admission of guilt, or a plea of nolo contendere” which counts toward criminal history.  See U.S.S.G. § 4A1.2(f).  Therefore, if states want their diversion programs to achieve their stated goals of avoiding convictions in appropriate cases, they should consider phasing out plea requirements.

The second way to avoid having a diversionary disposition reported as a conviction is to ensure that diversion includes sealing or expungement of the record.  There is a growing body of caselaw interpreting FCRA’s requirements that data be both accurate and up to date to prohibit reporting sealed or expunged convictions.  See Sharon Dietrich’s analysis of the issue for CCRC here.  In fact, it appears that Aldaco herself may have been eligible to have her record expunged under Illinois law, though there is no indication that she sought this relief.  While expungement probably would not have mattered to the federal court’s holding on the meaning of “conviction,” it might have given Aldaco an alternative FCRA ground for challenging the background screener’s report.

 

This post is part of a series for CCRC’s non-conviction records project, a study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred dispositions, and acquittals.

Other posts in the series:

CCRC to hold roundtable on criminal records at U. Michigan Law School

Colorado limits immigration consequences of a criminal record

Survey of law enforcement access to sealed non-conviction records

Administration withdraws proposal to require federal job-seekers to disclose diversions

Iowa high court holds indigent attorney fees bar expungement

NY judge rules police need court order to access sealed arrests

CCRC opposes requiring federal job seekers to disclose some non-conviction records

CCRC launches major study of non-conviction records

 

 

 

 

“Wealth-based penal disenfranchisement”

This is the title of a study by UCLA law professor Beth Colgan, published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, in which she documents how every state that disenfranchises people based upon criminal conviction also conditions restoration of the vote for at least some people upon their ability to pay.  In some states this is because the law requires people to pay fines, fees, restitution and other court costs before they can vote.  Even in the states that restore the vote immediately upon release from prison, “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement” may occur through policies applied by parole and probation authorities. Colgan proposes that such laws and policies can be challenged on Equal Protection grounds, arguing that felony disenfranchisement should be considered not as a civil rights deprivation but as punishment.  She argues that the test developed by the Supreme Court in cases involving disparate treatment between rich and poor in criminal justice practices, should operate as a flat prohibition against “the use of the government’s prosecutorial power in ways that effectively punish one’s financial circumstances unless no other alternative response could satisfy the government’s interest in punishing the disenfranchising offense.”

Colgan’s article is particularly relevant in light of Florida’s recent enactment of a law that seems to frustrate the will of the 64% of Florida voters who acted last fall by ballot initiative to provide relief from one of the country’s strictest disenfranchisement provisions.  On Friday, shortly after the Governor signed into law a bill conditioning restoration of the vote on payment of all court-imposed debt, a group of civil rights organizations filed suit in federal court, claiming that the new law violates the Constitution in several ways, most premised on the notion that disenfranchisement constitutes punishment.  Among other things, the suit argues that “the Fourteenth Amendment’s doctrine of fundamental fairness prevents states from punishing individuals if they fail to do the impossible—satisfy legal financial obligations when they do not have the means to do so,” and that the new law violates Equal Protection in discriminating between those who are able to pay and those who are not.  We intend to follow this litigation all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

Here is the Colgan article’s abstract: Read more

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