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California Supreme Court: ‘Honest and Upright Life’ Possible While in Custody for Expungement Purposes

Misael Vences Maya was convicted of his latest conviction (of several) for DUI and a separate conviction for felony possession of a controlled substance. Under Penal Code § 1170.18, subds. (f) and (g), he successfully applied to have the possession conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. He then sought to have the conviction expunged under Penal Code § 1203.4a(a), which contains the ‘‘honest and upright life” requirement.

Maya had been in immigration custody since completing his state sentence, and during that time, he refrained from drug use, attended Alcoholics Anonymous, and participated in fire camp, which, according to Maya, demonstrated that he had been living an honest and upright life as required by the statute.

The district court did not agree. While it did not mention his conduct while in custody, the court stated that “being in custody for substantial periods of time” is not equivalent to living “an honest and upright life.”

The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision, rejecting the premise “that a trial court considering an expungement motion may consider custodial behavior in assessing an honest and upright life.” People v. Maya (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 266. However, in dissent, Judge Martin J. Tangeman concluded that the statute permits consideration of custodial conduct.

The California Supreme Court explained that it “granted review to resolve the narrow question whether conduct while in custody can satisfy the honest and upright life requirement.”

It began its analysis by observing that “the People now concede that ‘[n]othing in the text, structure, or purpose of [section 1203.4a(a) categorically forbids a trial court from considering actions … while in custody – including immigration custody – in evaluating whether an individual seeking the expungement of a misdemeanor conviction has led an honest and upright life.’” The Court announced that it agrees with that position.

The Court explained that the text of the statute itself “strongly suggests that a court may consider a defendant’s behavior in custody….” The statute’s language directs courts to examine whether the defendant has “lived an honest and upright life” “since the pronouncement of judgment,” not since “the date of release from custody,” the Court pointed out.

This position makes practical sense as well, the Court reasoned. Trial courts often concern themselves with a defendant’s conduct while in custody in other contexts (e.g., §§ 1170.18, subd. (b)(2), 1170.126, subd. (g)(2)), including new criminal conduct (e.g., § 243.1 [battery against a custodial officer] and 4573.6 [possession of a controlled substance]). “In short, persons in custody can, and often do, commit crimes ...,” and consideration of such conduct for expungement purposes “encourages compliance with the law ... pending their release,” the Court explained.

Thus, the Court concluded that the Court of Appeal erred because it is possible for a defendant to demonstrate an honest and upright life while in custody.

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Related legal case

People v. Maya



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