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Appeals Court Overturns Federal Judge’s Expungement of “Jane Doe’s” Conviction

Court Says Federal Law Doesn’t Give Judges the Power to Expunge Convictions

Unlike many states, New York doesn’t have an expungement law to give second chances to deserving Americans with past criminal convictions. Sadly, neither does the federal court system. The issue of criminal record sealing and expungement of convictions made news nationwide recently, when it was announced that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York overturned the expungement of a conviction by U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson (now in private practice). Judge Gleeson expunged an unnamed woman’s 2001 fraud conviction, over the objections of the prosecutor. The case is a sad reminder of how badly we need second-chance legislation at both state and federal levels in order to reduce the unduly harsh and often permanently debilitating collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.

The case centers on a woman, “Jane Doe,” who was originally sentenced by Judge Gleeson to five years of probation for her involvement in an insurance fraud scheme (where she posed as a passenger in a staged car accident and recovered $2,500 on a civil claim). After completing her sentence, she was faced with the collateral consequences of her conviction – experienced by so many ex-offenders in our system – and was unable to secure a job as a home health care aide (sometimes being hired, and then fired, once a background check was done and employers learned of her conviction). After years of facing barriers in the workplace and unable to earn a productive living due to her conviction, she turned for help to Judge Gleeson, who heard her motion and ordered her conviction expunged. He noted that he had intended to sentence her “to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.”

Clearly, Judge Gleeson’s goal was to do the right thing, not just for Jane Doe but for society at large. Nobody benefits when a justice system permanently destroys an individual’s ability to be a productive part of the community. The U.S. Government didn’t agree with what Judge Gleeson did, and they won on appeal. In this month’s reversal of Judge Gleeson’s 2015 ruling that expunged Jane Doe’s records, the circuit clarified that the law “is confined to the expungement of arrest records following a district court’s order of dismissal,” not records of a valid conviction (emphasis added).  In other words, Congress has failed to authorize Judge Gleeson or any other U.S. District Court judge to expunge convictions, regardless of the equities, and Jane Doe is forever saddled with her conviction. However, Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier did note that “our holding that the District Court had no authority to expunge the records of a valid conviction in this case says nothing about Congress’s ability to provide for jurisdiction in similar cases in the future.”

The unfortunate reversal of Judge Gleeson’s ruling for expungement is discouraging news for those advocating for criminal record sealing and a larger movement toward enacting both federal and New York State expungement laws. However, it also emphasizes that the remedy for people like Jane Doe lies with Congress and state legislatures, not with the courts. It’s time for Congress to take action and change federal law to permit expungement of criminal convictions, just as it’s time for New York State to do the same. Consider this case a call-to-action for advocates to continue to work to make criminal record sealing and expungement a reality in New York and the entire United States federal court system. Reformed ex-offenders with limited, non-violent past offenses deserve the opportunity to be productive members of the community.

For more information about the status of criminal record sealing and expungement law in New York and the latest developments, or to see if you or someone you know qualifies for conditional record sealing in NY, call Rick Collins at 516-294-0300 or email him at [email protected].

To read more about the overturning of Judge Gleeson’s ruling surrounding the expungement in the Jane Doe case, click here: https://blogs.wsj.com/law/2016/08/11/court-federal-judges-lack-authority-to-erase-valid-convictions/ ; https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/court-overturns-judge-ruling-expunged-convict-record-article-1.2747673

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