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Defense win! Court of appeals reverses circuit court’s denial of request for expunction

State v. Cheneye Leshia Edwards, 2017AP633-CR, 4/17/18, District 1 (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication), case activity (including briefs).

Edwards entered a plea to disorderly conduct and asked the sentencing court to order expungement in the event he successfully completed probation.  The court denied the request without explaining why. So Edwards filed a postconviction motion arguing that (1) the sentencing court erroneously exercised its discretion, and (2) the postconviction court had the inherent authority to grant expunction.  The court of appeals reversed on (1) and declined to address (2).

The result in this case turned on the standard of review:

¶12 Whether to grant expunction upon the successful completion of a sentence is subject to appellate review for a proper exercise of discretion.  State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27, ¶6, 353 Wis. 2d 601, 846 N.W.2d 811.  As we said in State v. Helmbrecht, 2017 WI App 5, 373 Wis. 2d 203, 891 N.W.2d 412, “[A] court will weigh the benefit of expungement to the offender against the harm to society.”  Id., ¶8 (citing Matasek, 353 Wis. 2d 601, ¶41).  Discretion contemplates a process of reasoning based on the facts or reasonable inferences in the record, guided by proper legal standards that lead to a reasonable conclusion.  See Helmbrecht, 373 Wis. 2d 203, ¶11 (citing State v. Delgado, 223 Wis. 2d 270, 280, 588 N.W.2d 1 (1999)).

The sentencing court did not weigh anything. It expressed frustration with how the legislature and the Department of corrections have been handling expungement and then held “I’m not going to find expunction is appropriate in this case.” The court of appeals reversed and remanded for a hearing on the question of expunction eligibility.

¶26 We agree with Edwards that the Helmbrecht court’s process of reasoning based on facts in the record stands in stark contrast to this record specifically, the trial court’s complete absence of:  (1)  mention of any facts in the record regarding the allegations against Edwards as the effect of expungement; and, (2) any reasoning of benefit/harm in his case.  The only expungement comments the court made at sentencing were related to its frustrations with the current statute, its requirement that a trial court decide before a sentence is served whether the defendant will benefit and/or society will be harmed, and the manner in which the Department of Corrections executes its responsibilities on reporting non-compliance with conditions of probation.  We take no position on the validity of the court’s frustrations; we note only that they do not satisfy the requirements of a proper exercise of discretion.

¶28 . . .  Helmbrecht is clear that the trial court must demonstrate, through its words, that it considered the benefit/harm analysis of WIS. STAT. § 973.015 and must articulate a process of logical reasoning leading to its conclusion.  This the court did not do.

The court of appeals’ “use your words” admonishment is certainly interesting. Sentencing courts frequently fail to articulate their reasoning as required by State v. Gallion  (click here ) and yet appellate courts steadfastly deny challenges based on that error.

Edwards’ alternative argument is also noteworthy.  In State v. Arberry, 2018 WI 7, 379 Wis. 2d, 905 N.W.2d 832, SCOW rejected a defendant’s postconviction motion for sentence modification based upon the new factor–that Matasek requires circuit courts to address expunction at the time of sentencing, and the circuit court had failed to do so.  See our analysis here. In this case, Edwards tried different strategy. She argued that the postconviction court had the inherent authority to grant expunction and because she had by then successfully completed probation, the court should grant it. The court of appeals declined to address the argument in this case, but it is certainly worth trying in other expunction cases. Keep an eye out for just the right facts. For the latest on expunction, click here.

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