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Federal Courts Have No Jurisdiction to Expunge Convictions

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 23, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal district court in Brooklyn has no authority to expunge a valid conviction of a woman who said her arrest record had prevented her from securing a job as a health aide. The Second Circuit opinion did take sympathy on the woman and suggested that Congress should consider allowing federal judges to have the ability to erase old convictions.

Exemplary Life

The woman who sought to clear her arrest records was convicted in 2001 for her part in a staged car accident scheme, but she had since lived an "exemplary" life, according to the ABA Journal. Jane Doe had pleaded with the court to erase the record of her criminal past. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Gleeson -- the very same judge who'd sentenced her more than a decade in the past -- granted her request while noting he was "acutely aware" that he'd broken traditional conduct typically followed by many of his peers.

Typically, judges do not expunge arrest records, let alone erase criminal convictions. However, the overturning of criminal convictions is not unheard of, but usually only occurs in rare case-by-case circumstances.

Life Sentence

Despite the circuit's reversal of Judge Gleeson decision, the three-judge panel commented that Congress should perhaps make powers to clear criminal histories available to the lower federal courts in light of the increased awareness that a criminal record amounts to a "life sentence" with regards to job prospects.

Circuit Lamentations

It appeared that the circuit's decision was based on the letter of the law and criminal procedure rather than on issues of equity and public policy. The panel was not immune to the justification of the lower court and closed with words originally voiced by AG Loretta Lynch: "Too often, Americans who have paid their debt to society leave prison only to find that they continue to be punished for past mistakes."

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