Indiana courts interpret new expungement law

On September 15, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement to a woman convicted 13 years before of forgery and drug-dealing, holding that the court abused its discretion in denying relief where the case fully met the statutory standards. The decision provides a window into how one of the Nation’s most expansive new expungement laws is being interpreted and enforced by the courts of the state. Judging by this decision, the approach to restoration of rights in this otherwise-conservative state remains encouraging.

Here is Olivia Covington’s article from the Indiana Lawyer reporting on the decision, with a link to its full text.

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a Jay Circuit Court decision to deny a woman’s petition for expungement of her records after she was convicted of forgery and dealing in methamphetamine.

In Mindy M. Cline v. State of Indiana, 38A04-1512-XP-2221, Cline filed a petition for expungement of her 2003 forgery conviction and 2004 dealing in methamphetamine conviction on Oct. 16, 2015, and the state did not oppose.

However, on Nov. 13, 2015, Cline’s petition was denied, with the trial court saying it was “based largely on the nature of the convictions, the severity of the offenses and the relatively short duration since release from probation/parole on the most recent convictions.” At that time, Cline had been out of supervision for five years.

At a hearing one day before Cline’s petition was denied,  Jay Circuit Judge Brian Hutchinson had told Cline that he remembered her convictions, particularly her methamphetamine conviction, and that he was tired of dealing with meth and heroin offenders.

“I’ve had a belly full,” Hutchinson said of drug offenders. “I’m not doing favors for people that are causing these problems in Jay County.”

Cline appealed, saying the trial court abused its discretion by relying upon circumstances that are not statutory bars to expungement – specifically, the type of offense and length of time elapse.

The state wrote that Cline was asking for the Court of Appeals to reweigh the evidence and invade the province of the fact-finder, but in its reversal on Thursday, the court wrote that the state’s argument ignores the fact that the existing evidence given to the trial court pointed toward expungement.

Further, the court wrote that it seemed the trial court thought Cline had eight convictions, rather than two. Although her original expungement petition stated that she had four forgery convictions and four dealing in methamphetamine convictions, the evidence at the expungement hearing showed that she only had one conviction each.

Cline was young when she was convicted and has now satisfied the prerequisites for expungement, the court wrote. Further, the Court of Appeals said she has been consistently employed and has earned various degrees, licenses and certifications, including an associate’s degree in business administration.

However, Cline testified that she lost her job as a store manager when the store owners learned of her record. She testified that she would like to return to management and would be more able to do so if her record were expunged.

The Court of Appeals called Hutchinson’s remarks about Cline’s past convictions and drug offenders as a whole “troubling.”

“Undeniably, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs are a burden upon communities and judicial resources,” the court wrote. “That said, our legislature has provided a second chance for individuals who have in the distant past committed drug-related crimes.”

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the denial of Cline’s petition for expungement, with Judge Michael Barnes dissenting.

Barnes wrote in a separate opinion that although Hutchinson’s comments were “not exactly artful and (were) unnecessarily harsh,” the trial court was within its parameters to deny the expungement petition. Further, Barnes wrote that state statute is silent on what factors trial courts may consider when deciding how to exercise its discretion.

However, Barnes wrote that he would remand the case to trial court to clarify how many convictions it believed Cline had and reconsider its denial.