U.S. Judges Cannot Expunge Federal Convictions, Appeals Court Finds

By Michael Klazema on 8/16/2016

In state and county courts, ex-offenders can win the right to have their criminal records expunged. In the past, reformed ex-criminals have pursued expungement to improve their chances of finding gainful employment. Judges will grant these petitions if the plaintiff in question has exhibited a lengthy period of law-abiding behavior, though the nature and severity of the original crime are also taken into account.

According to a recent Reuters report, federal judges are not permitted to expunge federal criminal records. This ruling was passed down by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York and pertained to a federal case involving insurance fraud. The original case dates back to 1997 and involved a woman referred to in court records as "Jane Doe." Doe played a role in staging a car accident to get a fraudulent insurance payout.

Doe was a passenger in the staged accident. When she was convicted by a federal jury in 2001, she avoided prison time but received a federal criminal conviction on her record and five years’ probation along with an initial 10-month home detention sentence, factors that made it difficult for her to find a job. Before the conviction, Doe had worked as a home health aide. When her federal conviction began showing up on her background checks, it made potential employers skeptical of hiring her.

Doe brought her case before U.S. District Judge John Gleeson, who ruled to expunge her federal conviction in May 2015. In Gleeson's eyes, Doe had paid her debt to society when she finished her five years of probation. He didn't believe that Doe deserved to face a sentence of "a lifetime of unemployment."

The United States Justice Department disagreed with Gleeson's ruling and brought the case to the Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, the appellate court has ruled that Gleeson overstepped by granting expungement to Doe. The ruling bars any federal judge from expunging any federal convictions for the foreseeable future, even if the convictions in question render ex-offenders unable to find jobs. The Court of Appeals said that Congress would have to pass a bill to give U.S. judges the power to expunge federal convictions.

The Fair Chance Employment movement and the concept of criminal justice reform have been the subject of multiple recent headlines. Ban the box policies have spread rapidly throughout the country, with the goal of giving ex-offenders a better chance to compete for jobs. Reform activist groups have not yet publicly released statements regarding the ruling.


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