More than 128,000 Nashville residents stand to benefit from an agreement reached last Wednesday afternoon in a lawsuit that sought to help citizens who were arrested but never convicted of a crime clear their names. The lawsuit aimed to ease filing requirements for criminal record expungement, which is a legal process that results in a person’s public criminal records being removed and destroyed.
Among other things, the expungement process allows people who have been wrongfully arrested to avoid being subjected to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, and educational opportunities.
“Consequences for criminal activity should be reserved for those who are guilty,” Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk said. Once an expungement petition has been processed, expunged records no longer appear on a public background check.
Currently, Tennessee law provides that anyone who has been arrested for a crime but never found guilty of it is eligible to have his or her arrest records expunged free of charge. However, a persistent problem for many poor people who are eligible for expungement is that they are physically required to come down to the clerk’s office and file the necessary paperwork in person. Unfortunately, for those who lack access to transportation, who can’t afford to take a day off of work, or who live out of town, this requirement has effectively become an insurmountable burden. For example, in just a single court in Nashville in a single decade alone, more than 128,000 people with a combined 350,000 separate case records that were either dismissed or never prosecuted in the first place have not had their statutory right to expungement vindicated.
In September 2015, attorneys Daniel Horwitz and James Danly filed a lawsuit on behalf of three petitioners seeking to ease requirements for filing expungement petitions. Among their primary demands was that eligible individuals be permitted to file expungement petitions offsite, rather than having to do so in person.
On February 3, attorneys representing state and local government agencies agreed to allow this reform to be implemented.
“This common sense reform will finally allow thousands of innocent people to access a legal right that has remained frustratingly out of reach for those without means,” said Horwitz. Once Wednesday’s reform takes effect, eligible individuals will be permitted to file for expungement by mailing a notarized expungement petition to the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk.
The reform also comes shortly after two bills modeled after the petitioners’ lawsuit that would expand access to the expungement process statewide were introduced in the state legislature. The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville), would require courts to order that all dismissed case records be expunged “without further action by the person charged” within two years of the date of dismissal. The second bill, sponsored by Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) and Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville), would further ease filing requirements by permitting eligible individuals to file expungement petitions online.
“Our efforts to ensure that poor Tennesseans enjoy meaningful access to the expungement process took a very important step forward today,” said Horwitz. “We’re extremely encouraged by the overwhelming, bipartisan support for reform that this lawsuit has generated, and we’ll continue fighting to ensure that the expungement process becomes accessible to the hundreds of thousands of people who have previously been allowed to fall through its cracks.”
Additional information about the expungement process can be found at: .