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Expungement decision requires proper exercise of discretion, including statement of rationale

State v. Rachel M. Helmbrecht, 2017 WI App 5; case activity (including briefs)

A circuit court’s decision on whether to order expungement under § 973.015 involves the exercise of discretion, and therefore the general rules governing the proper exercise of discretion apply to the expungement decision.

¶11     The statute at issue here clearly contemplates the exercise of discretion by the sentencing court and puts forth two factors for the sentencing court to utilize in exercising that discretion after it determines whether a defendant is indeed eligible for expunction: (1) whether the person will benefit from expungement and (2) whether society will be harmed by the expungement. “The term ‘discretion’ contemplates a process of reasoning which depends on facts in the record or reasonably derived by inference from the record that yield a conclusion based on logic and founded on proper legal standards.” See State v. Delgado, 223 Wis. 2d 270, 280, 588 N.W.2d 1 (1999). “The record on appeal must reflect the circuit court’s reasoned application of the appropriate legal standard to the relevant facts of the case.” See id. at 281. The analysis starts with the presumption that the court has acted reasonably, and the defendant-appellant has the burden to show unreasonableness from the record. State v. Haskins, 139 Wis. 2d 257, 268, 407 N.W.2d 309 (Ct. App. 1987).

¶12     We hold that in assessing whether to grant expungement, the sentencing court should set forth in the record the facts it considered and the rationale underlying its decision for deciding whether to grant or deny expungement. Such is the exercise of discretion contemplated both by the statute and our supreme court’s pronouncement in [State v.] Gallion, [2004 WI 42,] 270 Wis. 2d 535, ¶19[, 678 N.W.2d 197] (The exercise of discretion contemplates a process of reasoning: “‘This process must depend on facts that are of record or that are reasonably derived by inference from the record and a conclusion based on a logical rationale founded upon proper legal standards.’”) (citation omitted). Thus, in exercising discretion, the sentencing court must do something more than simply state whether a defendant will benefit from expungement and that society will or will not be harmed. We have repeatedly held that the utterance of “magic words” is not the equivalent of providing a logical rationale. Rather, the sentencing record should reflect the process of reasoning articulated in Gallion.

At sentencing the circuit court denied expungement, saying only that it couldn’t find society would not be harmed by expungement without giving any additional reasoning or explanation. (¶4). While that isn’t good enough to show a proper exercise of discretion, the court gave an extensive statement of its reasoning in response to Helmbrecht’s postconviction motion. (¶6). That additional explanation suffices to show the circuit court properly exercised its discretion in denying expungement. (¶¶13-14). State v. Fuerst, 181 Wis. 2d 903, 915, 512 N.W.2d 243 (Ct. App. 1994) (reviewing court’s analysis of exercise of discretion includes consideration of postconviction orders because a circuit court has an additional opportunity to explain its sentence when challenged by a postconviction motion).

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