DWI Expungement - Court of Appeals Decision

A frustrating trend had emerged in Hennepin County with its handling of DWI expungements. It was becoming quite clear that obtaining an expungement of a DWI record was going to be nearly impossible. Other counties throughout the State give DWI expungement requests fair consideration and have granted them. But, Hennepin County had yet to do so and never granted an expungement of a DWI record. Thankfully, the Court of Appeals has stepped in with a decision it released yesterday.

In. State v. J.E.H., the Court of Appeals reversed a denial of a DWI expungement petition, finding the district court’s ruling to be clearly erroneous on a number of facts. This last part is important – finding a court’s ruling to be clearly erroneous is not something the Court of Appeals does regularly. Let’s take a look at the case and how the district court got its decision wrong.

The Facts – 

J.E.H. was attempting to expunge a 2008 DWI conviction for an alcohol concentration of .16. He needed an expungement because he regularly travels internationally for his company, including to Canada. And when in Canada, he needs to sign business documents. The evidence provided to the district court explained that the DWI conviction made such travel extremely difficult and, even if he gained entry into Canada following a DWI, he was unable to execute the documents because of this record pursuant to Canadian law. He had an affidavit from a Canadian attorney explaining this.

J.E.H. also provided evidence about his excellent work history, community service, and that this was his only criminal record. Succinctly put, this is a petitioner that most certainly needed and deserved this expungement.

But, the court disagreed, citing to the fact that this record can still be used to enhance any future DWIs and that a sealed record is difficult to obtain for using in the future. It also feared that sealed records are not as accurate, without citing any to support this contention. And, of course, the court cited to the numerous stats about the dangers of DWIs when analyzing seriousness of the offense.

The Court of Appeals was unimpressed with this analysis by the district court.

The Analysis –

First – the district court maintained that sealed records were somehow less reliable or complete, and that the records were needed for enhancement purposes. The Court of Appeals challenged this by succinctly stating that there is no evidence on how inaccessible or less reliable records are after being sealed. And, correctly, the Court of Appeals cited to Minn. Stat. 609A.03, subd. 7a(b)(1), which explicitly permits the unsealing of records for purposes of prosecution and sentencing. Therefore, as the Court notes, the expungement law already accounts for this enhancement argument. This “does not appear to be an issue in this case.” Putting it more differently: Really?!

Second – the district court “dressed up”, as counsel for J.E.H. argued, the severity and nature of the DWI in finding a way to deny the expungement. The district court found that the high reading, the fact that DWIs are considered ‘targeted misdemeanors’ for record keeping purposes, and the obvious dangers associated with DWIs make any DWI a serious offense. But, the Court of Appeals correctly notes that these sort of findings would apply in all DWIs and would disqualify any petitioner. And it asserts that this contravenes the expungement statute that expressly permits DWI expungements. Succinctly, the Court of Appeals is calling out the district court for doing using these generalized reasons for disqualifying every DWI expungement petitioner. Hopefully, this message is understood.

Third – the district court marginalized the benefit J.E.H. would derive from the expungement. It concluded that the hardship is more an inconvenience than an actual burden. The court pointed to the fact that the business has adjusted so far and can continue to do so and he is not barred from all international travel. And it notes that he may gain access to Canada, essentially interpreting Canadian law in doing so. But, the court ignored the fact that J.E.H. could not execute documents in Canada. This is undeniably a burden and, by not including it in any analysis, is clearly erroneous.

Fourth – it’s a minor point, but one that has occurred many times. The district court determined that J.E.H. did not seek to seal the Dept. of Public Safety records. But, the record is clear that he did serve said agency. For some reason, the district court will deny sealing records held by agencies even when they don’t appear or object. The Court of Appeals addressed this succinctly by saying it is erroneous to do so.

Before concluding, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its holding in R.H.B. when it stated that said case stands for the proposition that district courts must carefully consider the facts of each case and cannot rely upon generalizations regarding expungement or certain categories of crimes. In re-stating this, the Court is doubling down on its instruction to the district court – treat DWI expungements like every other misdemeanor.

There is no doubt that this is a very important Court of Appeals decision regarding the viability of a DWI expungement. It will be interesting to see how the Hennepin County district court reacts to this case and implements the clear instructions from the Court of Appeals going forward. What is also clear, it is imperative to retain a DWI expungement attorney to help you get the right and just result so that you can get the second chance you deserve.