Automated sealing nears enactment in Pennsylvania

[NOTE:  On June 30, HR 1419 was signed into law as Act 56.  Its provisions have been incorporated into the Pennsylvania profile of the Restoration of Rights Project.]

On Friday June 22, the Pennsylvania legislature took its final step toward passage of the so-called Clean Slate Act of 2018, delivering to Governor Wolf a bill (HR 1419) that he has already indicated he will sign.  When enacted, the Act will be the first state law providing for automated sealing of at least some conviction records, sparing individuals with qualifying records the trouble and expense of filing a formal petition for relief with a court.  Congratulations are due to the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the Center for American Progress for their sustained efforts over several years to enact this ground-breaking legislation, which will provide relief for “hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians with old and minor criminal convictions or who were arrested but not convicted.”  Their press release, linked here, notes that “[t]he bill enjoyed remarkably broad support, including from legislators and advocacy groups that rarely find common ground.”  

As soon as HR 1419 has been signed into law, we expect to incorporate into the Restoration of Rights Project a full analysis of its relevant provisions, which are fairly complex, and which become effective on different dates.  In the meantime, we note below what appear to be the bill’s most salient features.

In addition to authorizing automatic sealing through an “order for limited access,” HR 1419 retains existing authority for sealing by individual petition, and expands the range of cases eligible for relief through petition.  It does this in several ways:

  • It makes certain misdemeanors eligible for sealing for the first time;
  • It shortens the 10-year eligibility waiting period by having it run from conviction as opposed to completion of sentence, and makes only convictions that occur within that period disqualifying, as opposed to any arrests, as under present law (though all financial penalties must be satisfied – a provision not explicitly in existing law);
  • It cuts back substantially on the kinds of prior convictions that will make individuals ineligible for relief under present law;
  • It further limits dissemination of sealed conviction records, so that licensing agencies will not longer be routinely permitted access once a sealing order has been issued.
  • It clarifies and amends the laws providing for dissemination of non-conviction and juvenile records by police departments. 

However, by far the most noteworthy and unusual provision of the bill is its provision for automatic computer-assisted identification and sealing of eligible conviction records, obviating the need for any initiating court action by the subject of the records.  While a few states now authorize automatic sealing of some non-conviction records, no state extends automatic sealing relief to adult convictions, or even to non-conviction records on as extensive a basis as Pennsylvania will when HR 1419 is signed into law.  As noted below, some though not all of the expanded eligibility criteria for sealing by petition also apply to this so-called “clean slate” sealing.

HR 1419 spells out a procedure by which the Administrative Office for state courts and the State Police will identify eligible cases, giving local district attorneys an opportunity to object.  Lists of cases deemed eligible for automatic sealing will be submitted on a regular monthly basis to commonwealth courts.  The courts will then issue a blanket “order for limited disclosure” applicable to each listed case, so that individuals will not have to file a court petition or pay a filing fee in order to have their record sealed. The bill also authorizes automatic sealing of records that did not result in conviction.

Finally, the bill specifies the process going forward whereby the Administrative Office of the Courts and the State Police will identify through computerized search techniques the cases that are eligible for automatic sealing, and submit to the commonwealth courts on a regular basis lists of these cases for a judicial sealing order.

Even after passage of the new law, there will still be cases in which an individual must file a petition in order to obtain sealing relief.  This is because not all cases eligible for sealing by petition will also be eligible for automatic sealing, notably because of differences in the types of prior offenses that are disqualifying.  For example, a prior felony or serious misdemeanor conviction at any time will disqualify an individual from consideration for automatic sealing, whereas only the most serious prior felonies will disqualify an individual for sealing by petition, and then most only for a limited period of time.  Conversely, all “summary” offenses are eligible for automatic sealing after 10 years.  (These minor offenses are not mentioned in the law providing for sealing by petition, but they are eligible for expungement after five arrest-free years.).

The amendments enlarging eligibility for sealing by petition are effective December 26, 2018, while many other provisions of the Act are effective June 28, 2019.  The courts and state police are directed by law to identify all cases eligible for automated sealing between June 28, 2019 and June 27, 2020.  Indications are that implementation will be done in phases during that period.

Note:  Thanks to Sharon Dietrich, a major force behind the Clean Slate Act, for reviewing the above description of the new law.


Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

Visit Author's Website
View All Posts