5Ws+1H: Why It Happens: Expungement can clear embarrassing records

District Attorney Jack Thorp stands with his wife, Joy Pittman Thorp, as he is sworn in at the Wagoner County District Courthouse. Motions for expungment of arrests and convictions are a routine part of Thorp's job.

To remove arrests or convictions from the records of wrongdoers, it requires an expungement. That court-ordered process can prevent potential employers and institutions from seeing past run-ins with the law if they conduct a public records inspections or background check.

"It's all in the interest of justice," said District Attorney Jack Thorp. "A lot of times, when an individual's case is expunged, that means they didn't do this crime. Nobody wants to punish somebody in that circumstance. But there are certain charges that should not be expunged."

Many situations can lead to an expungement. For instance, a person can qualify for an expungement if he has misdemeanor or felony charges that were dropped, or dismissed, and will not be filed again; if he was arrested, but no charges were filed; if he was under 18 when the offense was committed; if he received a deferred sentence for misdemeanor or felony; and more.

If a person is arrested, but not charged, once the arrest is filed, the DA's office will make a determination.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, the DA's office will take it and agree to the expungement of the arrest," said Thorp. "It has to go to the [Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation], it has to go through the courts, and once that happens, it's received by an entity that then can do a dismissal of an individual's [National Crime Information Center] report or an OSBI report."

Once it's dismissed on the report, the actual filings and arrest reports are sealed.

If a person is charged with a crime, but the case is dismissed, it's the same process, but the person would have to file for the expungement.

"The one example of a how it's different would be when an individual has received a deferred sentence," said Thorp. "At the conclusion of a deferred sentence, after it's completely over, the court orders the record expunged. Generally it's in court - sometimes with the individual present, and other times it's not. A lot of times, these cases are docketed the day of the sentence, whenever it expires."

A deferred sentence is when a defendant pleads guilty to crime and is placed on probation, and although the person pleaded guilty, a conviction is not immediately placed on his record. When the probation is complete, the case can be dismissed.

Thorp said the governor also has the power of pardon and commutation.

"With the power of pardon and commutation, there's also a process in there to wipe the criminal history off the record or expungement," he said.

Thorp said how long it takes to have something expunged is on a case-by-case basis. It's a routine part of his office, which often receives specific motions of expungement.

"Let's say you got an arrest, you weren't changed, but it's still during the period of time when you could be charged," said Thorp. "A lot of times, charges will come to the DA's office, and then we review it and decline to prosecute, but we ask for further investigation. In a case like that, we're not going to expunge the arrest. But if it's case where we've declined - we've decided that an individual has not committed this crime - that's the type of thing where we would agree to an expungement."

Although a person might have an arrest or conviction expunged, that does not erase it from the record entirely.

Criminal courts and law enforcement agencies might still be able to access the record of expungement, but Thorp said the arrests or convictions should not appear on background checks.

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