SJC Ruling Clarifies Standards for Expunging of Criminal Records
Case in Point
By Justice Mary-Lou Rup and Briana Dawkins, Esq.
A recent decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Commonwealth v. K.W., clarifies the standard for persons seeking to expunge records of criminal court appearances and dispositions from their state criminal records (known as Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI) and court and criminal justice agency records.
By way of background, it is important to first understand that in Massachusetts, individuals may seek to clear their CORI in one of two ways: through sealing or expungement. If sealed, the record still exists but is unavailable to the general public. If expunged, the record no longer exists.
Petition to Seal Record (Mass. General Laws, Ch. 276, Secs. 100A-100D)
With some exceptions, one can petition the commissioner of Probation to seal disposed cases after a period (three years for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies) beginning on the later of the date of a guilty finding or release from incarceration, with no intervening criminal convictions. A judge can allow immediate sealing if the charge ends with a finding of not guilty or no probable cause, dismissal, or nolle prosequi, and must allow a petition to seal for first-offense convictions (with successful completion of probation), not-guilty findings, dismissals, or nolle prosequi of possession of marijuana or Class E controlled substances or in the presence of a person in possession of heroin, as well as decriminalized offenses.
For other offenses, sealing is discretionary, and the petitioner must show ‘good cause’ — that continued public availability of the record creates a current or foreseeable future disadvantage. If sealed, the courts will report ‘no record’ to criminal background checks, and the individual, if asked (such as on an employment application), can report having no record as to the sealed offense. However, courts, police, criminal-justice agencies, and certain other entities still have immediate access to sealed records.
Petition to Expunge Record (Mass. General Laws, Ch. 276, Secs. 100F-100P)
In 2018, as part of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, the state Legislature created two pathways for individuals to seek expungement. Following the first pathway (referred to as ‘time-based’ expungement), individuals who, before age 21, committed certain low-level offenses may apply to expunge those records.
Following the second pathway (known as ‘reason-based’ expungement), an individual can seek expungement of juvenile and adult criminal court appearances and dispositions by presenting ‘clear and convincing evidence’ that the record was created as a result of false identification or unauthorized use or theft of identity of the petitioner; fraud perpetrated on the court; ‘demonstrable’ error by law enforcement, witnesses, and/or court employees; or an offense that is no longer a crime.
There is a ‘strong presumption’ in favor of expungement of records created as a result of one of the statutory factors. That said, expungement is not automatic. A judge has discretion and must still balance that presumption against any ‘significant countervailing concern’ that may be raised when deciding if expungement is ‘in the best interests of justice.’ If none are raised, the judge must order expungement.
An expungement order results in permanent erasure and destruction of the record of the qualifying offense. Expungement of the record for a qualifying offense will have no effect on the existence of other records related to the same or other incidences.
Sealed or Expunged Records
It is important to understand the policy reasons that support the sealing and expunging of records. As the SJC noted in its recent decision, whether to seal a record ultimately relies on a defendant’s and the Commonwealth’s interests in keeping the information private, which includes “reducing recidivism, facilitating reintegration, and ensuring self-sufficiency by promoting employment and housing opportunities for former criminal defendants.”
With regard to expungement, the SJC stated that by specifically creating the qualifying reason-based factors, the Legislature itself had identified a good cause basis for expungement. Records created as a result of one of those factors “have virtually no bearing on whether the petitioner might commit a criminal act in the future, and their value to society therefore is vanishingly small.”
Once sealed or expunged, a record cannot disqualify a person from examination, appointment, or application for employment with any government agency, or in determining if that person is suitable for the practice of any trade or profession requiring a license.
Any application for employment that seeks information concerning prior arrests or convictions must contain the statements required by the statutes relating to sealing records and expungement of records regarding the applicant’s ability to answer ‘no record’ when records have been sealed or expunged. Employment applications should be reviewed to ensure compliance with the required language.
This article gives a general description of sealed and expunged criminal records. However, procedures for and the effects of sealing and expungement are complicated. Therefore, interested individuals should carefully review Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 276, sections 100A-U, or seek advice from an attorney.
Justice Mary-Lou Rup is a retired Massachusetts Superior Court judge and now senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson. Briana Dawkins is also an attorney at Bulkley Richardson, where she practices in the employment and litigation groups.