For years, prosecutors and defense attorneys have battled over the sealing and expungement of executive branch records. It is well settled that Minnesota courts can expunge judicial records, but Minnesota Supreme Court decisions had suggested that executive branch records could not be touched due to the separation of powers. In practice, this meant that a person seeking to hide their criminal convictions from potential employers and landlords could only remove the court records. However, the executive branch records (those kept by police, corrections, and agencies) would remain permanently available and easily accessible, thus greatly undermining the purpose of an expungement.
A few days ago that all changed. In State v. M.D.T., the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s order to seal executive branch records. The court based its reversal of course on a few reasons. First, it said that it had misinterpreted Minnesota Supreme Court expungement law. The court explained that rather than prohibiting courts from expunging executive records, the Supreme Court merely meant that it should only be done in very limited circumstances. Second, the court reasoned that the purpose of an expungement (to allow an offender to rehabilitate themselves and not be saddled with a conviction forever) was impossible to achieve unless executive records were also able to be sealed. Third, a person’s criminal record can now be obtained far more easily than in the past, so a criminal conviction can cause a greater impact than before. Finally, the court explained that expunging executive records was necessary for a court to exercise its inherent authority to protect fundamental rights, such as employment and housing.
Over the strong objections of the State, the court affirmed the expungement and the sealing of the executive records. Because this is such a contentious issue, it would not be surprising for the Minnesota Supreme Court to step in and clarify the court’s authority over the executive branch. The Court of Appeals made some good arguments, but the issue mostly turns on what exactly the Supreme Court meant when it restricted the expungement of executive records in earlier cases. I’m sure the Supreme Court will take the opportunity to clarify its earlier holdings. Until then, though, it might be a good time to file for an expungement if you were thinking of doing so.