The circuit court made a mistake when it granted a Maryland woman’s request to get a conviction for identity theft expunged, according to a recent ruling from the Court of Special Appeals. The appeals court said the crime isn’t eligible for erasure from the records.
The petitioner, Ms. H, pleaded guilty to one count of identity theft by obtaining personal identifying information in violation of Maryland law in 2012. The court imposed a one-year suspended sentence with three years of supervised probation and 40 hours of community service. She successfully completed her probation in 2015.
In 2021, she filed a pro se petition for expungement of the crime. Pro se means that she filed the request on her own without the services of a lawyer.
Prosecutors oppose expungement
The State responded with an answer opposing the petition. The State argued that her conviction was not eligible for expungement because identity fraud is not among the criminal convictions listed in Maryland law as being eligible for expungement.
The expungement hearing was held in October 2021. The plaintiff explained that since the conviction she had obtained a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in social work, that she was presently an officer in the U.S. Army and had worked for several agencies including AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. However, she said she wanted to get a job as a social worker because of her experience in foster care but was unable to do so because of the identity theft conviction.
The judge ruled from the bench explaining that he was granting her request based on “good cause.” The judge said he was impressed by her military record and her life since the conviction. The court entered the order in November 2021. The State appealed the order.
Circuit court made a mistake
The State argued on appeal that the court had mistakenly construed the “good cause” provision in Maryland law. The provision states that “a court may grant a petition for expungement at any time on a showing of good cause.”
Prosecutors argued that Maryland law goes not grant courts “roving authorization to grant expungement petitions on substantive grounds deemed ‘good cause’ by the court outside the statutory prerequisites for relief.” Rather, Maryland law only grants the courts the discretion to deviate from the petition timing requirements listed along with the crimes eligible for expungement, the State said.
The appeals court noted that identity fraud was clearly not among the convictions listed in Maryland law as an expungable offense. It then discussed whether the circuit court had the authority to grant expungement of a crime that was not listed in the expungement statute for “good cause.”
The court relied on a case it decided in July 2022, In re Expungement of Vincent S. The petitioner in that case asked that his crimes of burglary and felony theft be expunged. The state opposed the request, arguing that the petitioner had been convicted of a crime after those convictions. Under Maryland law, if a person is convicted of a new crime within a certain time period, the original conviction is not eligible for expungement.
The State said the man was not eligible for expungement because of the new conviction. The court agreed and denied the request for expungement. Vincent S. argued on appeal that the circuit court failed to recognize its discretionary authority to grant expungement for good cause. He said “good cause” gave the courts authority to grant petitions for expungement even if the petitioner could not satisfy the statutory criteria.
The appeals court rejected the broad reading of the law. The court noted that when the legislature added the “good cause” provision in 1988, lawmakers intended the amendment to authorize the courts to waive the time requirements listed under Maryland law rather than to provide the courts with blanket discretion to expunge any criminal conviction if good cause is shown.
As a result, the lower court made a mistake when it granted Ms. H’s petition for erasure of a crime not listed under Maryland’s laws on expungable crimes. The court reversed the order granting expungement and sent the case back to the circuit court with instructions to vacate the expungement order.
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