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Statutory Interpretation

It depends on what the meaning of the word “was” was.

In a 4-3 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court engaged in a battle of statutory interpretation to limit the scope of offenses eligible for expungement in State v. S.A.M. Even though the legislature’s most recent expungement law’s intent was to broaden the scope of possible cases one can clear from their criminal record (widely acclaimed as a second chance law[1]), the majority believed it was not the legislature’s intent to include felony convictions later deemed a misdemeanor by a stay of imposition.[2]

When used in a felony case, a stay of imposition means that the felony conviction will become a misdemeanor upon the defendant completing probation. Every day in courthouses across the state of Minnesota, you will hear judges explaining this to defendants, prosecutors selling it to the defense, and defendants believing it will make a difference in their future. If the felony offense is not one of the fifty expungement eligible felonies, however, the product is a lemon.[3] Your felony conviction will still turn to a misdemeanor if you complete probation, but your conviction will sour when you find out you will not be eligible for a statutory expungement because of the court’s ruling in S.A.M.

Fourteen years ago, S.A.M. made a mistake. His mistake ultimately resulted in a Second Degree Felony Burglary conviction and received a stay of imposition. His probationary period was for up to ten years, but he was discharged after three because he completed everything he needed to do. Since that time, he has not committed any criminal offenses. If his offense is considered a misdemeanor conviction – like his court records show – like his sentencing judge probably explained to him – like his prosecutor sold him on – and like he relied on, then it should be eligible for an expungement like a misdemeanor, right? Not according to the four justices who sided with the majority this past Wednesday.

The majority determined “was convicted” of a misdemeanor meant what the conviction was on the date of sentencing.[4] Therefore, because S.A.M.’s conviction was a felony on the date he was sentenced, it did not matter that it later turned into a misdemeanor when he completed probation for purposes of getting his record cleared. The dissent vehemently disagreed.

The dissent disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of “was convicted”. The dissent believed “was convicted” should be read through the lens of the “deemed” statute; and S.A.M.’s conviction should be deemed a misdemeanor in the expungement statute. The dissent wrote “[t]his interpretation focuses on the status of the conviction as of the time of the petition for expungement. At that time, S.A.M. could truthfully represent that his criminal record included a misdemeanor—not a felony— conviction. He ‘was convicted’ of a misdemeanor.”

The dissent believed the “statute’s focus is on the petitioner’s criminal records at the time of the petition [and] [a]t the time of S.A.M.’s petition, his criminal record showed a misdemeanor, not a felony.” Unfortunately, the dissent could not get one more justice to agree with its interpretation. But, all is not lost. The legislature could amend the statute to include felonies later deemed a misdemeanor in the expungement statute as eligible offenses. This may take some time, but one can reasonably hope that a law widely publicized as a second chance law, would extend second chances to more people, such as S.A.M.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and greater Minnesota. For a free consultation about whether your offense may be expungement eligible, call us at 651-800-4842 or email: ambroselegal@icloud.com. Expungement attorney MN; Criminal Defense Attorney St. Paul MN; and St. Paul Criminal Defense Lawyer

[1] Minnesota’s new expungement law went into effect in 2015. Many criminal offenses suddenly became eligible for expungement that previously were not.[1] Virtually every petty misdemeanor, misdemeanor, and gross misdemeanor conviction became eligible for expungement.[1] Fifty felony offenses were also made available for expungement.

[2] We previously blogged about the Court of Appeals’ decision in State v. S.A.M. here.

[3] See the list of felony cases here.

[4] The majority wrote “[b]ecause ‘was convicted” unambiguously refers to the date on which S.A.M. was convicted, there is only one reasonable interpretation of the statute and we need not resort to any of the canons of statutory construction or sources of legislative intent cited by the dissent.”

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