Bill would protect people from state lag in processing expungements

State police are up to two years behind in processing judges’ expungement orders, a class-action lawsuit claims

By: - December 18, 2023 1:07 pm

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) sponsored two bills intended to eliminate hurdles and expand protections for people seeking expungements. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Opioid addiction derailed Nikki Tierney’s life about 15 years ago, earning her criminal convictions and costing her custody of her children, her marriage, and her law license.

Long recovered, the Middletown woman successfully petitioned in March 2022 for an expungement of her criminal record. But nearly two years later, state police still haven’t processed the judge’s expungement order and released her record to a would-be employer, who rejected her, and the Navy, which considered barring her from her son’s graduation from boot camp.

Her criminal convictions, she said, have “followed me everywhere.”

“Many of the things that I lost or were taken away were given back. However, one that wasn’t was my ability to live in society like the rest of the people,” Tierney said. “When is enough? When? What more can I do?”

Tierney shared her story before the Assembly’s judiciary committee, urging them to support legislation that would prohibit the state police, which has a backlog of more than 46,000 unprocessed expungement orders, from releasing background records without first verifying whether a judge has ordered them expunged.

Nikki Tierney of Middletown testified before the Assembly’s judiciary committee on Dec. 18, 2023, at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Under the bill, if an expungement has been ordered but not yet processed, the State Bureau of Identification, the state police unit that disseminates background checks, would be prohibited from releasing the record.

The bill comes two months after the state Office of the Public Defender filed a class-action lawsuit against the state police for the agency’s “extreme delays” in removing expunged criminal offenses from background checks.

State police have fallen up to two years behind in processing expungement orders. That delay has resulted in the agency illegally disclosing criminal histories that judges have ordered sealed to potential employers, landlords, and others who run background checks, costing people jobs, housing, professional licenses, and other opportunities, the lawsuit charges.

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), the bill’s prime sponsor, said she first grew concerned about the state’s lag in processing expungement orders when she was working on marijuana legalization bills and learned the lag was an issue for many low-level drug offenders. More recently, constituents called her office to voice similar concerns.

“Unfortunately, some people have been hurt, because information that should have not been released was released because of the backlog of the expungements,” Quijano told the New Jersey Monitor.

The Assembly’s judiciary committee unanimously agreed Monday to advance the bill, which has yet to be heard in the Senate’s law and public safety committee. Lawmakers have a narrow window to act, with the current legislative session set to end Jan. 9.

The committee also advanced another Quijano bill that would make several changes to expungement procedures, most notably a fee-shifting provision meant to ensure low-income people granted expungements don’t get those expungements delayed by an inability to pay court-related fees. Under the bill, the state Treasury, not the courts, would be tasked with collecting owed money.

The bill also would allow people to apply for expungements in the county where they live, rather than the county where the offense took place, as current law now requires. That provision is intended to remove a barrier for people seeking expungements.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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