Metro Council committee takes up expungement issue

Pictured: a sign on the door of an office for expunging cases in Jefferson County, Ky. (WDRB/file)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The state Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that expungement fees for those who cannot afford them be waived, meaning thousands of Kentuckians will be able to have old criminal records wiped clean for free.

The unanimous ruling allows indigent people who were convicted of traffic, misdemeanor and some non-violent felony cases to have them erased from their record without paying a $50 filing fee and $250 expungement cost.

"It’s extremely important," said attorney Michael Abate, who argued the case before the high court. "There are hundreds of thousands of people in this state who have been disenfranchised by a felony conviction."

Abate noted that clearing a person’s criminal record will help not only with obtaining jobs, but the expungements of felony charges will also allow a person to vote again, own a gun and participate in their kids' school activities, among other benefits.

"There are just so many consequences in daily life" to having old criminal convictions on your record, Abate said.

The high court ruled that a person whose case is eligible to be erased should not be prevented from benefiting from the expungement law just because they cannot afford to pay for it. 

"We can identify no other situation in our Commonwealth where a judge renders a judgment that a litigant is entitled to a benefit under the law, but that litigant cannot obtain the benefit of the judgment unless and until he pays a fee," the court ruled.

The ruling revolved around the case of a Louisville man trying to expunge a 1998 theft conviction.

In 2018, a Jefferson Circuit Court judge denied the man’s motion to expunge the case because he could not afford to pay the mandatory fees. The state Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. 

The case will now be sent back to Jefferson Circuit Court for expungement.

The Kentucky Attorney General's office argued against waiving the fees and that, at most, only the $50 filing fee should be ignored. 

Attorney General Daniel Cameron argued expungement of a case was not a constitutional right and fees were required under state law.

Former Attorney General Andy Beshear, now the governor, took no stance on the issue during the previous appeal. 

In past years, legislators have proposed waiving the fees to help people who have had run-ins with the law get jobs and support their families, as years-old convictions and even unproven charges still show up on employer background checks.

None of those bills passed.

The fees collected are split between several Kentucky agencies, including Kentucky State Police, prosecutors and the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

"We recognize the hardship our holding may place on the agencies who benefit from the expungement fee," Justice Michelle Keller wrote. "However, we cannot allow that potential hardship to color our analysis of the statutes at issue. We merely interpret the statutes as enacted by the General Assembly."

Once a case is expunged, the file, court videotape, fingerprint cards and all other records are supposed to be sealed forever – not only from the public, but from police, prosecutors and the judge. The cases are sealed and removed from public files.

If asked about the case, court clerks are required to say it does not exist.

A conviction is eligible to be expunged five years after it was disposed of, meaning after any jail or probation sentence is served or restitution is paid.

People are not allowed to expunge multiple felony cases. 

A 2019 study conducted at the University of Michigan Law School found people who received expungements saw their wages increase on average by 25 percent within two years.

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