Expungement is the process of removing a criminal court record from public view – while breaking down barriers to employment and housing that might otherwise keep people with a record from maintaining stability in life.
In Maryland, advocates for criminal justice reform have fought long and hard to expand access to expungement with several legislative sessions resulting in major changes to expungement law. This year, Maryland lawmakers passed bills that likely will make expungement a reality for many people who were not previously eligible.
The most impactful expungement legislation this year was the REDEEM Act, which cut waiting periods required to expunge certain convictions in half. Maryland’s expungement law makes a distinction between cases resulting in a conviction and those that do not. Cases where the court did not enter a guilty verdict are typically much easier to expunge, while cases with one or more convictions face longer waiting periods and the requirement to stay free from additional convictions. It’s important to note that only certain convictions are deemed eligible for expungement – mostly nonviolent misdemeanors, plus a few nonviolent felonies. The REDEEM Act does not significantly alter the list of eligible convictions.
The REDEEM Act, which goes into effect October 1, 2023, will reduce the waiting periods for expungement of most eligible misdemeanor convictions from 10 to five years. The one exception will be second-degree assault and battery being reduced from 15 to seven years. Felonies that already were eligible under current law will see a waiting period reduction as well. First- and second-degree burglary, along with felony theft, will be lowered from a 15-year wait down to 10 years. Other eligible felonies will be lowered to a seven-year wait. Of great importance is the waiting period calculation. The clock doesn’t start until a person completes their sentence, whether it’s incarceration, parole or probation. A person convicted of a new offense during the expungement waiting period will potentially be blocked from filing an expungement.
The REDEEM Act also adds malicious destruction of property to the list of eligible misdemeanor offenses, placing it in the five-year category. Additionally, unpaid court costs will not be a barrier to expunging a case.
One more piece of legislation, recently signed by Governor Wes Moore, will have an impact on expungement. This bill adds certain hunting and fishing violations to the list of eligible convictions. Offenses such as hunting without a license, failure to wear proper reflective gear and failure to obtain certain permits, among others, are added to the five-year category discussed above. These changes will go into effect on October 1 of this year as well.
When Maryland voters passed the cannabis legalization referendum last November, they also triggered new changes to expungement. Adult use and possession of cannabis becomes legal on July 1, 2023, along with new expungement laws.
A criminal case where a person was convicted solely of cannabis possession will become eligible for expungement if the amount of cannabis was less than 1.5 ounces.
Expunging possession of any amount of cannabis will be possible if the person successfully completes their sentence. A conviction for possession with intent to distribute cannabis will be eligible after three years from the completion of the sentence. Perhaps most interesting will be the ability to expunge cannabis-related charges even if the same case contains otherwise ineligible convictions. This subverts the longstanding “unit rule” that prevents many cases from being expunged. Finally, the courts have been directed to automatically expunge certain cannabis-related charges by July 1, 2024.
Many people living with a criminal record soon will see new opportunities and have peace of mind because of these new laws, which criminal justice advocates say will bring Maryland in step with the rest of the nation in terms of expungement eligibility.
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service can help determine if you are eligible for expungement under the new laws and provide legal representation if you qualify for our services. Visit us at mvlslaw.org or call 443-547-6537 between 9 a.m.-12 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Chris Sweeney is an attorney and workforce development manager at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.