Although momentum seems to be on the side of criminal justice reform and allowing for broader abilities to expunge criminal records, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals did not exactly see it this way in a recent case. The court would not allow expungement of a defendant’s criminal record when he was discharged from probation. In order to be fully eligible for possible expungement, defendants need to complete their sentence in full, no matter the circumstances. To ensure your best chances of expunging your criminal record, make sure to hire a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
Nonpayment of Restitution Kept a Defendant from Clearing His Record
The case was Wisconsin v. Reed. The defendant was charged with and convicted of misdemeanor theft of under $2,500. He was sentenced to one year of probation. As part of his sentence, he was obligated to make restitution and pay court costs. This reached a total of almost $2,700. Reed completed his probation, but he was not able to pay the restitution. At that point, the restitution was converted to a civil judgment against Reed. He still did not have the money to make the payments on the civil judgment.
Reed sought expungement of his criminal conviction. He was having difficulty finding a job because of the misdemeanor theft conviction on his criminal record. Employers would not trust him enough to hire him, even though he did his probation time and was trying to start over. Reed’s request was denied, and he took the case to court. The circuit court in Milwaukee County ruled against Reed, and this case reached the Court of Appeals.
Wisconsin Has Very Strict Expungement Laws
Currently, Wisconsin has one of the strictest expungement laws in the country that stands in the way of the fresh start that people need. Even though there is an effort underway to loosen the laws, the current law is that expungement is only available to people under the age of 25 who have been convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes. In addition, there is a requirement that the defendant “complete their sentence.”
It is the last requirement that posed an issue for Reed. He was indigent and did not have the money to pay the restitution. Even though it was converted to a civil judgment, the court still viewed it as part of his sentence. This is the same exact problem that people are running into throughout the country when they are trying to do things like have their records cleared or regain the right to vote. Court fees and fines often stand in their way.
Paying Restitution and Court Costs Is a Condition of Probation
The Court of Appeals held that, so long as the civil judgment was outstanding and Reed did not pay it, he did not complete the terms of his sentence. Here, the court held that paying back the restitution was one of the conditions of probation that Reed must meet. According to the court, just because probation was terminated does not mean that Reed completed the terms of his sentence.
Accordingly, Reed finds himself in an impossible situation due to the harsh law and the court’s strict reading of it. He cannot find a job with a theft conviction on his record, and the theft conviction will not be expunged unless he pays the judgment. However, he cannot earn the money to pay back the civil judgment without a job. There are few ways for defendants like Reed to start again because their financial situation keeps them from being able to avail themselves of the limited relief that the law offers.
Current Wisconsin Law Makes a Fresh Start Difficult
As Ray has demonstrated, expungement is critically important to criminal defendants who want to get jobs and find places to live. Otherwise, their past will come back to haunt them and keep them from starting anew. For these defendants, they are trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place by strict Wisconsin laws.
Changing the restrictive expungement laws is just part of what can help defendants. There are 1.4 million people in Wisconsin who have criminal records who may face circumstances exactly like Reed. Hopefully, there will be help on the way, but completing the terms of a sentence is usually a condition of expungement, even if more people can take advantage of it. Without some sort of financial relief for these defendants, they will continue to struggle to clear their records.
In the meantime, if you have a criminal record and are seeking expungement, you should see a criminal defense attorney. Wisconsin laws right now allow for expungement in the following circumstances:
- You were under the age of 25 when the crime happened
- The crime carried a sentence of six years or less
- You have completed the terms of your sentence
Contact an Attorney with Any Questions About Expungement
Removing criminal records or suppressing convictions is not always straightforward. You should contact an attorney for legal help about your situation. With the law set to possibly change, there may be more options. Talk to an attorney about the upcoming legal changes to see if there is a possibility that you can expunge a conviction that has been holding you back in life. At the same time, difficulty in removing a conviction from your record may give you pause when you are offered a quick plea deal from the prosecutor. While it may seem easy, you could be living with the consequences for years to come. You could be stuck with a conviction on your record that will not come off, and it can cause you problems in numerous parts of your life.
Appleton Criminal Defense Attorneys
If you have been charged with a crime or have a criminal record and are seeking expungement, you need legal counsel. You should not seek to face the criminal justice system alone, as the decisions that you make can have lifelong effects. The attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff are here to help you. Contact us today at (920) 450-9800 to learn more about your legal options when you are facing charges and to schedule your free initial consultation.