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Texas Supreme Court Interprets State’s Expungement Statute

by David Reutter

The Supreme Court of Texas held that the state’s expungement statute is “neither entirely arrest-based nor offense-based.” Based upon the facts of this case, it held that the petitioner was entitled to expungement of records and files with respect to the charge for which she was acquitted.

T.S.N. was arrested on June 11, 2013, for a felony offense of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. During the arrest process, the officer also executed a November 16, 2010, warrant for a misdemeanor offense of theft by check.

The assault charge was tried by a jury, resulting in an acquittal. T.S.N. pleaded guilty to the theft charge. After the acquittal, T.S.N. moved for expungement of the records and files relating to the assault charge under article 55.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

The State opposed the motion. It argued that the statute is “arrest-based,” requiring “expunction of arrest records only if the results of the prosecutions as to all of the charges underlying the arrest meet statutory requirements for expunction.” The trial court disagreed and granted T.S.N.’s petition, and the State appealed.

On appeal, the State continued to advance this argument. T.S.N. countered that article 55.01 (a)(1)(A) is “offense-based,” so expunction of the assault charge records is an entitlement without regard to the conviction on the theft charge. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding the statute linked “arrest” to a single “offense.” That is, expunction is permitted where the charge for which T.S.N. was acquitted and the charge to which she pleaded guilty “did not relate to a single episode of criminal conduct.”

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether expunction is available where “a single arrest occurred for multiple unrelated offense,” and one offense qualifies for expunction under the statute but the other does not.

The State argued before the Texas Supreme Court that the appellate court’s decision conflicts with the decision of other appellate courts of appeals’ interpretation of the statute. T.S.N. countered that the State is wrong, as those decisions interpret a different section of the statute than applied to her.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with T.S.N. It found the stature addresses “different factual situations: subsection (a)(1) concerns acquittals and pardons, with clear instructions provided as to multiple offense arrests under subsection (c); whereas, subsection (a)(2) concerns dismissals and plea bargains.” The Court expressed no opinion on subsection (a)(2) and constrained its analysis to subsection (a)(1).

Under subsection (a)(1), acquittal or pardon is the only prerequisite to expunction. The statute specifically provides for expunction of records and files relating to an arrest if “the person has been released and the charge, if any, has not resulted in a final conviction and is no longer pending and there was no court-ordered community supervision … for the offense is a Class C misdemeanor.”

Based on that language, the Court held that the statute is neither entirely arrest-based nor offense-based. In this case, the acquittal fell into the parameters for expungement as the legislature provided for in “limited, specific circumstances.”

The State argued that “permitting expungement in multiple-offense circumstances as to offenses for which a person has been acquitted or pardoned will result in widespread record keeping inconsistencies.” The Court was not persuaded, noting “the Legislature’s demonstrated acceptance of selective redaction and expunction of records as valid remedial actions …”

The Court concluded that the statute entitles T.S.N. “to expunction of all records and files relating to her arrest for the assault charge for which she was tried and acquitted.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. See: State v. T.S.N, 547 S.W.3d 617 (Tex. 2018). 

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