Chesterton Tribune



Indiana prosecutor challenging expungement law

Back To Front Page

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 Indianapolis Star.

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.

Posted 10/28/2013