A divided Delaware Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s denial of expungement applications filed by three men because of their convictions in other states.
In a 3-2 decision issued Friday, the Supreme Court said a Superior Court judge erred last year in ruling that the men were ineligible for expungement of their Delaware convictions because they also had out-of-state convictions.
The case involves a 2019 law that expanded eligibility for expungement of criminal records. One provision notes that the law applies “to all criminal cases brought and convictions entered in a court in this state.” The law also says a person is eligible for expungement only if he or she has “no prior or subsequent convictions,” except for traffic offenses, simple possession of marijuana, or underage possession of alcohol.
The Superior Court ruled that the prohibition on prior or subsequent convictions included out-of-state convictions. The Democratic majority on the Supreme Court disagreed.
“After reading the statute as a whole and avoiding inconsistencies and impracticalities, we hold that ‘prior or subsequent convictions’ refers only to Delaware convictions,” wrote Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr.
Seitz acknowledged, however, that the law does not specifically refer to “Delaware convictions.”
“From this, it might be tempting to jump immediately to the general definition of ‘conviction’ in the criminal statutes, as our colleagues in dissent do, and then to the conclusion that ‘convictions’ include out-of-state convictions,” he wrote. “But words in a statute should be given meaning through the context in which they are used.”
As context, Seitz cited a 2014 case involving a woman whose request to have her juvenile record expunged was denied because she had committed traffic violations as an adult. The Supreme Court declared that the traffic offenses did not amount to subsequent adult convictions that would bar expungement.
In his dissent, Justice Gray Traynor, a Republican writing for himself and Justice Karen Valihura, said the language in the statute is “unambiguous” and does not require prior or subsequent convictions to have been entered only in a Delaware court.
“Our job is to ‘read statutes by giving (their) language its reasonable and suitable meaning’ whether or not that aligns with the meaning the parties ascribe to it,” he wrote, citing a 2012 Supreme Court ruling.
Echoing concerns expressed by Valihura during oral arguments in September, Traynor noted that, under the majority’s interpretation, a person with several felony convictions in a neighboring state would be eligible for expungement of a Delaware criminal conviction, while a person with a single prior misdemeanor in Delaware would be ineligible. He also noted that Delaware courts routinely look at convictions in other states when considering whether a person can possess a weapon, is a repeat DUI offender, or should be considered a habitual criminal.
Traynor also said expungement of a Delaware conviction that leaves a person with a criminal record in another state defeats the purpose of Delaware’s law, which is to remove the “hindrance” a criminal history presents to a person’s job, educational, and housing opportunities.
Attorneys for the three men seeking expungements welcomed the ruling.
“This is a significant and appropriate interpretation of the expungement statute, and it will have a broad impact on the many worthy individuals hoping for a second chance to live their lives without the impediment of a Delaware criminal record,” Eliza Hirst, a public defender with the state Office of Defense Services, said in an email.
Officials with the attorney general’s office, which argued in support of the expungement denials, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The offenders involved in the appeal include Alex Osgood, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to felony possession with intent to deliver marijuana. A judge declared Osgood ineligible for expungement because he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession in 2006 while a student at West Virginia University.
Osama Qaiymah sought expungement of a 2015 misdemeanor conviction for possession of untaxed tobacco products. He was denied because of misdemeanor convictions in Pennsylvania in 2018 and Maryland in 2020 involving unstamped cigarettes.
Eric Fritz was arrested in Delaware in 2009 and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and a felony charge of failing to abide by a no-contact order. He was deemed ineligible for expungement because of a 2011 conviction for disorderly conduct in Pennsylvania.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!