Minnesota’s sweeping new expungement law takes effect

1932MinnesotaSnowScene640Beginning January 1st, 2015, many Minnesotans will have a meaningful shot at a second chance through criminal records expungement. For decades, many individuals have relied upon (and often languished under) a court’s inherent authority to expunge (or seal) criminal records, but recent Minnesota Supreme Court decisions effectively eviscerated that remedy. Without a legislative act expressly granting judicial authority to seal records held within executive branch agencies, the majority of petitioners were granted orders sealing only court records—leaving numerous publicly accessible criminal records untouched.

The new law, passed with bipartisan support and building upon momentum gained with last year’s Ban the Box for private employers, changes that.   It provides new authority for expunging (sealing) both criminal and juvenile records held by executive branch agencies; requires data mining companies to observe expungements, protects employers and landlords hiring and renting to individuals with expunged records, addresses victimization and housing evictions, and clarifies a number of procedural issues.  The standard for granting expungement remains that under current law, requiring the court to balance private and public interests.

While by no means a silver bullet, this new legislation will help a significant number of Minnesotans currently locked out of employment, housing, licensure, education, and countless other of life opportunities, by providing a true opportunity for a second chance.

Here is an explanation of the new law’s specific provisions. 

  • Overview: The new law revamps Minnesota Statute 609A, which currently allows for the sealing of certain drug charges, juveniles who were prosecuted as adults, and criminal proceedings not resulting in convictions or guilty pleas (i.e., dismissals and acquittals). The new law will allow courts to seal records of those who have successfully completed diversion programs, as well as those who were convicted of petty misdemeanors, misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and certain low-level non-violent felonies. This expansion of the statutory remedy grants courts the authority to seal records held by executive branch agencies such as the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (the primary source of criminal information for employment, professional licensure, and housing background checks), the Department of Human Services, and the police. This addresses a major gap that for the last several years has rendered the criminal expungement remedy illusory for the majority of petitioners.
  • Eligibility: Under the new law, persons will be eligible for a “full expungement” (sealing of both judicial and executive branch records) in the following situations:[1]

1) All pending actions or proceedings resolved in the petitioner’s favor (i.e., by acquittal or dismissal);

2) Completion of all terms of a diversion or stay of adjudication, and petitioner has not been charged with a new crime for at least one year since successful completion of program or stay;

3) Conviction of a petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor conviction (or stayed sentence), and petitioner has not been convicted of a new crime for at least two years since completion of sentence;[2]

4) Conviction of a gross misdemeanor conviction (or stayed sentence) and petitioner has not been convicted of a new crime for at least four years since completion of sentence;[3]

5) Conviction of specified low-level, non-violent felonies (or stayed sentence) and petitioner has not been convicted of a new crime for at least five years since completion of sentence. The fifty eligible felonies range from fairly common fifth degree controlled substance and sale of simulated controlled substance offenses, as well as theft of $5000 or less, receiving stolen goods, and aggravated forgery, to more obscure matters such as rustling and livestock theft and altering livestock certificate. The exhaustive list of eligible felonies can be found at Minn. Stat. 609A.02(b)1-50.

  • Standard:  As under current law, expungement remains an extraordinary remedy granted only upon clear and convincing evidence that it would yield a benefit to the petitioner commensurate with 1) the possible disadvantages to the public and public safety if the record were sealed and 2) the burden on courts and public authorities to issue, enforce, and monitor an expungement order. To this end, courts may grant select records expunged while leaving others unsealed.

However, if a prosecutor agrees to the sealing of a criminal record, the court must (“shall”) expunge the record in eligible cases without requiring a petition unless it determines the interests of the public and public safety outweigh the record bearer’s interests.

  • Crime Victims: The new bill also grants further relief to individuals whose criminal matters were a result of victimization: if the court finds that the context and circumstances of the underlying crime indicate a nexus between the criminal record and the person’s status as a crime victim, the expungement shall restore the person to his or her status prior to the arrest. In doing so, the person shall not be guilty of perjury if he or she fails to acknowledge the record in response to any inquiry made for any purpose. In making the determination, the court may request a statement from a victim services organization or licensed health care provider. See Minn. Stat. 609A.03 subd. 6a.
  • Confirmation of Expungement: Helpfully, the new bill allows for the petitioner to request each agency and jurisdiction that receives the order granting expungement send a letter to the petitioner confirming that the record has been expunged. See Minn. Stat. 609A.03 subd. 8.
  • Remedy for Violated Order: The new bill allows for an individual whose record has been expunged to bring an action under Minnesota’s Data Practices Act against a government entity that knowingly opens or exchanges the expunged record. See Minn. Stat. 609A.04. 
  • Private Data Mining Records: The new bill closes the gap on private data mining records: if a business screening service knows that a criminal record has been sealed, expunged, or is the subject of a pardon, the screening service shall promptly delete the record. Minn. Stat. 332.70 subd 3a.
  • Employer and Landlord Protection: The new bill extends further protection for employers and landlords who hire or rent to individuals with expunged criminal histories: information relating to a criminal history record of an employee, former employee, or tenant that has been expunged prior to the act giving rise to the civil action may not be introduced as evidence in a civil action against a private employer or landlord. See Minn. Stat. 609A.03 Subd. 5 (e).
  • Housing Eviction Expungements: The new bill allows the court to expunge records relating to a housing eviction at the time judgment in favor of the defendant is entered, or any time thereafter upon motion of the defendant. Minn. Stat. 504B.345, subd 1 (c)2.
  • Limitations of Criminal Record Expungement Order: While the new law allows for more records to be sealed, it also grants criminal justice agencies the authority to open, use, and exchange sealed records without a court order, for investigation, prosecution, sentencing, or probation, or other correctional purposes. If the expunged record had been an acquittal or dismissed matter, the agency must obtain an ex parte court order to access the record.

Further limitations include the accessibility of expunged records of conviction without a court order for purposes of evaluating prospective employees within criminal justice agencies and for background checks in education-related employment, unless the expungement order is directed specifically at the Board of Teaching or the licensing division of the Department of Education.

The court may also order an expunged record opened upon request by the victim of the underlying offense, if the court has found that the record is substantially related to a matter for which the individual who has been victimized is before the court.

Notably, the expunged record that is opened or exchanged remains subject to the expungement order in the hands of the person receiving the record. That is, the record may not be used or shared outside the purposes listed above.

  • Juvenile Record Expungement: For matters resolved in juvenile court, petitioners can file for an expungement under Minn. Stat. 260B.198 subd. 6. Not unlike 609A, the juvenile statutory remedy preexisted the new law; however, its vague language (allowing the courts to expunge an “adjudication of delinquency at any time it deems advisable”) was recently interpreted by the Minnesota Supreme Court to grant the lower court the ability to seal only the order adjudicating the juvenile delinquent, rather than the entire executive branch agency’s file (e.g., the arrest record or the charging document), rendering the remedy essentially meaningless.[4]

However, as of January 1st, 2015, the court may expunge all records relating to a juvenile delinquency matter at any time if the expungement of the record would yield a benefit to the individual that outweighs the detriment to the public and public safety in sealing the record and the burden on the court and public agencies in issuing, enforcing, and monitoring the order. See Minn. Stat. 260B.198 subd. 6 paragraph (b) 1-8 for indicia the court will consider in making the determination.

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[1] The Volunteer Lawyers Network’s Chris Hanrahan addresses ambiguities of timing and notice in his article, Using the New Second Chance Expungement Law. Josh Esmay from the Council on Crime and Justice offers quick tips to petitioners in this Minnesota Public Radio article.

[2] The bill specifically excludes from expungement relief any convictions for domestic abuse, sexual assault, violations of orders for protection, no contact orders, and harassment restraining orders, and stalking. However, this exclusion (Minn. Stat. 609A.02 subd. 3(c)) is set to expire on July 15, 2015.

[3] See above.

[4] See In re Welfare of J.J.P., 831 N.W.2d 260 (Minn. 2013)

Emily Baxter

Emily Baxter is a Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Prior to this, Emily served as the director of advocacy and public policy at the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and as an assistant public defender representing indigent members of the Leech Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe charged with crimes in Minnesota State court. Emily is a former Archibald Bush Fellow. Her project, We Are All Criminals, which challenges society’s perception of ‘clean’ vs. ‘criminal,’ can be found at www.weareallcriminals.org.

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