MARTINSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — A central Indiana prosecutor has started a court
challenge aimed at throwing out a new state law allowing people with
low-level criminal convictions to have their records wiped clean.
The expungement law, which took effect July 1, allows old convictions to
be sealed for people who have completed their sentences and not been
convicted of other crimes for several years.
Legislators approved the change by wide bipartisan votes and it was signed
into law by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, with supporters saying it would
give a second change to people who've turned their lives around after
minor criminal convictions.
Hundreds of people around the state have since filed petitions seeking to
clear their criminal records, but Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega
said he believed the Legislature overstepped its authority under the state
constitution by writing the law so that judges have no discretion on
whether to grant the expungement.
"I just think it's important that we at least sort this out, and I'm sure
a lot of people are watching to see what happens," Sonnega told The
Sonnega said the challenge he filed in a Morgan County court this month
was prompted by a case in which a child molestation allegation was
resolved 20 years ago with a misdemeanor battery plea after a jury
couldn't reach a verdict on the more serious charge. Had the man been
convicted of child molesting, he would not be eligible for expungement.
Rep. Jud McMillin, the author of the expungement law, said he would
propose fine tuning the law but that he believed circumstances such as the
molesting case were anomalies.
"If we expect people to change their lives, we've got to give them a
reason to do something different," said McMillin, R-Brookville. "If we
don't give them that opportunity, or make it too hard or expensive, we are
not giving them any reason to act differently."
Sonnega is likely to face a difficult time having the law ruled
unconstitutional, said Joel Schumm, an Indiana University law professor.
"The Legislature put 'shall' in (the statute) for a reason. It was a very
intentional choice," Schumm said. "If not, you would have judges not
wanting to grant, especially if you have victims fighting it."
Regardless of how Morgan Circuit Judge Matthew Hanson rules on Sonnega's
challenge, the verdict likely is to be appealed.
The state attorney general's office, which typically represents county
prosecutors before the Indiana appeals or supreme courts, would defend the
expungement law if Hanson rules against it.
"While we respect the views of county prosecutors, we believe that changes
to statutes should be brought back before legislators to resolve policy
questions," Attorney General Greg Zoeller said.