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Delaware court says expungement law doesn’t include out-of-state offenses

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(The Center Square) — Delawareans with criminal records in other states will still be able to petition for their in-state records to be wiped clean, according to a ruling from the state’s highest court.

The three to two ruling by the Delaware Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that had rejected applications to expunge the previous criminal records filed by three men because they had convictions in other states.

Writing for the Democratic majority, Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. said while the law doesn’t specifically refer to “Delaware convictions,” the words in the statute “should be given meaning through the context in which they are used.”

“After reading the statute as a whole and avoiding inconsistencies and impracticalities, we hold that ‘prior or subsequent convictions’ refers only to Delaware convictions,” he wrote.

But the court’s Republican minority, Justices Gray Traynor and Justice Karen Valihura, dissented from the majority’s opinion. Traynor argued in his dissenting opinion that the court’s role is to give the statute’s wording a “reasonable and suitable meaning, whether or not that aligns with the meaning the parties ascribe to it.”

“Our courts routinely consider conviction records from other states when considering, among other things, a person’s eligibility to possess a weapon, determining whether a person is a habitual offender or a subsequent DUI offender,and enhancing a sentence,” he wrote. “I see no reason why they could not, and should not, do the same in the expungement-petition context.”

Traynor also pointed out that if someone from Delaware gets a state conviction expunged but still has a criminal record in another state, it “defeats the purpose” of Delaware’s law to remove the “hindrance” created by having criminal records.

Lawmakers expanded the state’s expungement law in 2019 to include “all criminal cases brought and convictions entered in a court in this state,” provided that the individual has “no prior or subsequent convictions,” excluding traffic infractions, possession of marijuana or underage drinking.

Major convictions – such as murder, felony assault, drunken driving, domestic battery, rape and other sexual offenses – cannot be expunged.

Unlike sealing a criminal record, which law enforcement can still view, expungement permanently erases charges from someone’s official criminal record.

The plaintiffs in the case include Alex Osgood, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to felony possession with intent to distribute marijuana, according to court filings. Osgood was denied expungement by a Superior court judge, who cited a 2006 misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession in 2006 while he was in college in West Virginia, the filings show.

Two other men, Osama Qaiymah and Eric Fritz, were also denied expungement by the lower court because they had previous or subsequent convictions in other states.

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