Lima clinic focuses on expunging criminal records

LIMA — Judges, lawyers, law students and representatives from various community agencies gathered at Bradfield Community Center this week to lend assistance to area residents seeking to have their criminal records removed from public view.

A program that focused on the sealing and expungement of such records attracted more than 180 applications from county residents, with approximately 50 individuals screened and invited to the center to have their applications completed. The remaining 100-plus applicants will be contacted in the near future once their eligibility has been established.

Residents seeking help with the expungement process were greeted by representatives of the City of Lima, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, the Ohio Northern University Legal Clinic, the Allen County Public Defenders Office and Lima attorney JaMesha Williamson.

Williamson, like others at the event, donated her time for the clinic. She sees it as an opportunity to give back to the community.

“When I got my law degree, I said I wanted to help people,” she said. “A lot of folks don’t know that they can get some criminal records sealed and that’s why we’re here. A criminal record can be a big deterrent in a lot of ways.”

Having a criminal conviction sealed or expunged, Williamson said, can greatly improve a person’s quality of life by helping them obtain employment, professional licensing or certification or affordable housing and financing.

While applications for expungements filed in Allen County Common Pleas Court or Lima Municipal Court require a $50 filing fee, applicants gathered at the Bradfield Center Thursday were stunned to learn their fees were being covered in full by a grant from the United Way of Greater Lima.

“The United Way saw how much this program helps bring financial stability to our community and they were very excited to help,” said Williamson.

“Through programs like this we are removing barriers to employment, education and housing,” Lima Mayor Sharetta Smith said. “We are giving these individuals an opportunity to take a better path and improve their lives.”

Sealed vs. expunged

When it comes to criminal records, the terms “sealed” and “expunged” are similar but not wholly interchangeable.

“When a record is sealed, only certain people — law enforcement, for example — can see it. Expunged records are permanently destroyed, deleted and erased in all physical or electronic forms” on official government databases, Williamson said.

That doesn’t mean that any and all references to a person’s criminal conviction will disappear from the internet upon expungement. Unofficial accounts of a person’s criminal activity could remain online when records are sealed or expunged by the courts, and social media accounts will also be unaffected.

“Nothing ever disappears permanently from the internet,” said Williamson. “But when a record has been expunged a person (who is applying for a job) can legally say, ‘No, I have not ever been convicted’ of that specific crime.”

Williamson said potential employers may learn of an applicant’s criminal conviction from other sources “but by law they can’t use that information as a basis for their decision” on whether or not to hire that particular person.

“I always tell my clients to be prepared to discuss their convictions if it comes up and to tell employers that expungement of those records means the court has found they have rehabilitated themselves,” she said.

Who is eligible?

Recent changes in Ohio law have widened the pool of eligibility for expungement applicants. First- and second-degree felonies cannot be expunged; neither can crimes of violence or sex-related crimes, regardless of the degree. Expungements for certain third-degree felonies are sometimes available, but that process is a little more complicated, Williamson said.

Now in Ohio persons who have been convicted of fourth- or fifth-degree felonies are eligible to have their records expunged as quickly as one year following the final disposition of their cases, providing none of the aforementioned circumstances apply. Individuals seeking to expunge a third-degree felony must wait three years before making an application.

Williamson said that simply being eligible does not mean their application for expungement or sealing of records will automatically be approved. Judges can reject expungement applications for any number of reasons.

“It is a good idea you prepare for the expungement hearing since must convince the judge that you are contrite and not likely to re-offend,” Williamson said. “You need to tell the judge that you want to have your criminal record sealed, put in plain words the charges you hope to erase from your record and show that the right amount of time has passed.”

At the hearing judges will make rulings on the eligibility of the applicants and whether that person has been rehabilitated to the satisfaction of the court.

Juvenile court judges can expunge all sealed records five years after the court issues the sealing order or upon the 23rd birthday of the person who is the subject of the sealing order, whichever date is earlier.

Judges ‘happy to do it’

Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Reed, who along with Magistrate John Payne from Lima Municipal Court was present at the clinic, said approximately 18 expungements were granted last year in common pleas court. That number is expected to increase with the change in the law that lowers the waiting period for some expungements.

Reed said employment opportunities are the single biggest obstacle facing persons with a criminal record.

“The courts want to help people who have paid their dues to get back on their feet. We are happy to do expungements,” he said, again reminding applicants that a court order granting expungement will not erase all public accounts of a past criminal history.

“I don’t control the internet,” the judge said.

Magistrate John Payne of Lima Municipal Court said the municipal court “believes in accountability, but we’re also for giving people a second chance.” He said that during expungement hearings judges will make an attempt to determine if the applicant has been rehabilitated.

“Make sure you’re prepared when you come to the hearing,” Payne said. “You will be asked what you’ve learned, how you are different today than when you committed the crime and where you are headed in your life.”

Reed called the hearings “a relatively positive experience” and noted that historically local prosecutors do not object to the requests.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, upon receipt of a filing for expungement courts are required to set a hearing date and notify prosecutors. Hearings must be held not less than 45 days and not more than 90 days from the date of the filing of the application.

Payne asked applicants in attendance for patience as the process plays out.

“We are currently short-staffed so I would ask you to be patient with us,” the magistrate said. “There are a lot of steps the application has to go through.”