ANNAPOLIS — Although Maryland lawmakers discussed variations of the expungement process for several years, it needed slightly more than two hours of debate Tuesday, Jan. 22.
This time, the discussion focused on a bill sponsored by Delegate Erek Barron (D-District 24) of Mitchellville on partial expungement of non-conviction offenses.
If a person is charged with several offenses relating to one incident but is acquitted on one or more, state law doesn’t allow for any of the offenses to become expunged. The law is formally known as “the unit rule.”
Criminal justice advocates have maintained this rule harms a person’s ability to obtain employment, education and housing.
“It’s an issue simply beyond criminal justice,” said Barron, the sponsor of the legislation. “This is about jobs for the people who are having barriers because of this issue of things they were not found guilty of appearing on their record.”
He’s researching how many other states enforce this law, but he said there aren’t many.
The legislation discussed during a hearing before the House’s Judiciary Committee also has the support of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, which pointed out that Blacks make up 28 percent of the state’s population but 70 percent of its inmates.
“The problem is the full impact of these laws passed over the years we have not been able to realize its full potential because of the punitive, restrictive unit rule,” said Caryn York, CEO of Jobs Opportunities Task Force, which helped more than 1,000 Baltimore residents obtain jobs. “If [a charge] was a non-conviction and you are not found guilty, then that should be eligible for expungement.”
According to the legislation, a person must file a petition in court to remove the charge from a criminal record. A state’s attorney would have 30 days to rule on it. If an agreement has been reached, then the court may order the expungement.
No agreement means a hearing would be scheduled and a final ruling could take up to three months.
For the past several years, lawmakers approved legislation on expungement that includes shielding nonviolent offenses from public view, offenses that are no longer a crime and expansion of misdemeanor charges.
If passed, the law wouldn’t take effect until 2021 to give the state’s judiciary enough time to make more than $1 million in upgrades to its information technology system.
John Morrisey, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, reiterated “it’s extremely complicated” to implement a new law with technology not already used by the judiciary.
Although Morrisey didn’t express any opposition to the bill, he said it would make the expungement process longer.
“It’s labor-intensive, but manageable,” he said. “Partial expungement would require multiple decision points about what is not entitled to be expunged and what needs to be redacted and shielded. These decisions cannot be delegated to a clerk and must be made by a judge.”
Mary-Denise Davis, chief attorney in the state’s Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, said court clerks can make changes regarding expungement cases.
“If a charge is listed that was not supposed to be listed, [then] the clerk’s office has the ability to expunge that charge that never should have been listed,” she said. “Every time I file a petition for a client that has a minor traffic case, that’s partial expungement. While it’s not formalized in the statute, in reality the state agencies that have to comply with the order are doing partial expungements.”
Opposition to the bill came from three prosecutors representing Baltimore, Caroline and Charles counties, who said it would increase workload from other expungement cases and require more funds to pay for additional resources and staff.
“This bill now opens up just about every case that we’ve every dealt with to review,” said Karen Piper Mitchell, deputy state’s attorney for Charles County. “When you create a bill that creates an additional burden on the state’s attorney’s office … that’s creates a problem.”
Delegate Susan McComas of Harford County asked how much additional funding would be needed for the bill.
The prosecutors didn’t have an exact figure, but John Cox, deputy state’s attorney for Baltimore County, said it would be “astronomical.”
Delegate Debra Davis of Charles County wondered if failure to support the legislation would be a violation of civil rights.
“Are any of you concerned about that?” she asked
No, said Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley.
“If you can show me that it’s the failure to obey a lawful order is the hindrance [and] not the theft, I’d be willing to look at that,” he said. “I can’t imagine that’s the case.”