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Minnesota Expungement Law – State v. C.W.N.

7th January 2018

Revisions to Minnesota’s expungement law continue to be interpreted by the courts.  On January 2, 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a published decision interpreting sections of Minnesota’s expungement statute in a way that broadens the accessibility of expungement relief to Minnesota citizens.  In State v. C.W.N., the court of appeals was presented with a question that required the court to look to recent amendments to the statute to decide whether the appellant (C.W.N.) was eligible for expungement, or whether he was barred for life from seeking an expungement.  The court held that C.W.N. was eligible for expungement, and that the interpretation of the statute advocated for by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) was incorrect.  This post will discuss the holding in C.W.N. and its implications for persons wishing to have their Minnesota records sealed.

In 2014, Minnesota passed legislation that substantially modified Minnesota’s expungement law.  The new statute greatly opened the doors to expungement for persons with state court criminal convictions in Minnesota.  In relevant part, the statute was modified to allow for expungement in the following situations, among others:

  • Where a person has been convicted of or  received a stayed sentence for a petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor and has not been convicted of a new crime for at least two years since discharge of the sentence for the crime.
  • Where a person has been convicted of or received a stayed sentence for a gross misdemeanor and has not been convicted of a new crime for at least four years since discharge of the sentence for the crime.

Notice that in both of the above situations, the law requires that a person not be convicted of a new crime for at least two or four years from the discharge of the sentence for the crime they wish to have expunged (two years for petty misdemeanors or misdemeanors and four years for gross misdemeanors).  In other words, if a person wishes to expunge a record, they must have a clean record for at least two or four years after the discharge of the sentence of the crime which they wish to have expunged.  This brings us to the central question in C.W.N. – What does “for at least two (or four) years since discharge of the sentence for the crime” mean?

In C.W.N., C.W.N. was convicted in 2000 of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor violations of a harassment restraining order (HRO convictions).  In 2002, he was convicted of gross misdemeanor DWI.  Many years later, in 2015, C.W.N. filed petitions to expunge his HRO convictions.  The BCA objected, arguing that C.W.N. was ineligible for expungement of his 2000 misdemeanor HRO conviction because he was convicted of a gross misdemeanor HRO crime later that year.  The BCA also argued that C.W.N. was ineligible for expungement of his 2000 gross misdemeanor HRO conviction because he was convicted of DWI in 2002.  Thus, argued the BCA, because C.W.N. had committed new crimes within the periods identified in the statute, expungement was prohibited.  The district court agreed, and denied statutory expungement of executive-branch records (for example, records at the BCA, police department, sheriff’s office, and prosecutor’s office).  C.W.H. appealed.  On appeal, there were two competing arguments: the BCA’s and C.W.N.’s.

The BCA’s argument was that the statutory language means that if a person has a new conviction during an applicable waiting period – two years for a petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor and four years for a gross misdemeanor – the person will never be eligible to seek statutory expungement. In other words, the BCA argued that the word “since” in the statute means that the two or four-year waiting period begins to run on the date of the “discharge of the sentence for the crime” and that if any new convictions occur during those waiting periods, a petitioner is forever ineligible to seek an expungement with regard to the crimes subject to the waiting period. C.W.N. argued that a person is eligible to seek statutory expungement as long as the person has not been convicted of a new crime during the applicable waiting period immediately preceding the filing of an expungement request.

The court of appeals sided with C.W.N. As a matter of statutory interpretation and as a matter of public policy, this was the correct decision. The law is now clear that a person convicted years ago of a low level offense may petition for an expungement of the record even in cases where they may have received a second conviction shortly after their first conviction. In the months and years ahead, we expect to see further interpretations of Minnesota’s expungement law, and we look forward to bringing you updates as the law continues to be applied and interpreted.