Delaware Supreme Court Rules Out-of-State Convictions Cannot Bar Expungement

December 19, 2023

Delaware’s Supreme Court has issued a ruling that reverses a lower court’s denial. The affected case concerns three plaintiffs’ expungement applications based on out-of-state convictions. As a result, the verdict could expand the eligibility for expungements within the state.

How It Started

This case centers upon a 2019 statute that expanded eligibility for expungement of criminal records. This law allows the expungement of felony convictions or multiple misdemeanor convictions associated with a single incident. However, the law includes stipulations for the expungement process.

Interested parties may expunge qualifying records only if they have avoided “prior or subsequent convictions.” However, exceptions to this requirement include underage possession of alcohol, simple possession of marijuana, or traffic offenses. Unfortunately, the law does not specify whether the process considers crimes that happened in other states.

The plaintiffs that appealed their cases to the Supreme Court had previously experienced denials in their expungement requests. According to their complaints, they received a letter from the State Bureau of Investigation or a court commissioner to offenses in other states. One of the individuals had a marijuana possession conviction in West Virginia; another had one for disorderly conduct in Pennsylvania; the third had smuggled unstamped cigarettes in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Challenge

The three individuals challenged their case in court, but two plaintiffs found no success until the current ruling. In an order upholding the denial, a New Castle County Superior Court judge found that the statute unambiguously barred expungement for individuals with prior or subsequent convictions. The judge emphasized that it did not matter whether they happened within Delaware. As a result, they appealed their convictions to the Delaware Supreme Court.

The higher court reversed the lower court’s ruling. According to the higher court, the lower had erred in finding the plaintiffs ineligible for expungement. After examining the statute and considering it in its entirety, it held that prior and subsequent convictions only include those committed in Delaware.

The Results

This decision had the court acknowledge that the law does not explicitly refer to only “Delaware convictions.” However, they emphasized the importance of context when using the words in a statute. Due to this ruling, the court could significantly expand the number of individuals who qualify for expungement under the 2019 statute.

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