Expungement of acquittals and dismissed criminal charges
By Jennifer Donovan, Staff Attorney with Iowa Legal Aid
As the Internet makes information about people more readily available, Iowans have good reason to be concerned about who has access to information about them and how that information will be used. Employers and landlords often seek information about a prospective employee or tenant’s criminal record and rental history. Some get this information directly through the Iowa Courts Online Search. Others rely on background check reports provided by private companies. Either way, Iowans run the risk that criminal charges will follow them for years to come – even if they were found not guilty or the charges were dismissed.
Iowa law previously allowed court records to be expunged in only a few categories of cases. These include juvenile delinquency cases; certain possession of alcohol under the legal age (PAULA), public intoxication, and consumption cases; and cases that resulted in a deferred judgment. This changed on January 1, 2016, when a new Iowa Code § 901C.1 went into effect, which allows criminal court records to be expunged if the charges were dismissed or the defendant was acquitted. When a court record is expunged, the clerk of court must store the court records in a way that they cannot be accessed by the public. If they are physical files or records, the clerk physically stores them in a secure area. For electronic files or records, the clerk creates a separate database that is exempted from public access. The expungement process for acquittals and dismissed charges will be the same as the existing process for expungement of deferred judgments under Iowa Code § 907.1.
The new law applies to records of a criminal case in which an acquittal was entered for all criminal charges or in which all criminal charges were otherwise dismissed. As such, the law does not allow expungement for charges that were dismissed or resulted in acquittal if the defendant pled guilty to or was found guilty of other charges in the same case. Expungement is also not available for charges that were dismissed because the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial.
It is important to note that records are not automatically expunged – a court order is required. Either the defendant or the prosecutor can file an application for an order to expunge the record of a criminal case. The court can also order expungement of the record upon its own motion. Further, all court costs, fees, and other financial obligations ordered by the court or assessed by the clerk must be paid before the case record can be expunged. Also, a minimum of 180 days must have passed since entry of the judgment of acquittal or the order dismissing the case. The court can waive that timeframe for good cause (for example, if the defendant was the victim of identity theft or mistaken identity). The court must still make sure that all parties to the case have enough time to raise objections to the expungement in case one of the requirements for expungement has not been met.
This law applies retroactively to any criminal case that fits the criteria for expungement. After January 1, 2016 the courts are required to notify defendants of the provisions of this law upon the acquittal or dismissal of all charges in new cases. Even though notice will not be provided to defendants in cases adjudicated prior to January 1, those who fit the criteria are eligible to apply for expungement.
This new law is not only important for attorneys handling criminal cases and their clients. Many Iowans struggle to secure and maintain employment and housing because of a criminal record that includes acquittals or dismissed charges. For example, sometimes landlords and subsidized housing providers reject potential tenants based on criminal history. Whether they rely on a full criminal background check or a simple search of the Iowa Courts Online Search, the results they get often include acquittals and dismissed charges. Some landlords and employers do not distinguish between convictions and acquittals or dismissed charges. Some go so far as to consider an arrest evidence of criminal activity and suitable grounds to deny someone housing. Thanks to the broadening of Iowa’s expungement law, attorneys will now be able to assist the many people who struggle to secure and maintain employment and housing because of a criminal record that includes acquittals or dismissed charges.
For additional information on options for expungements for juveniles, visit the Iowa Legal Aid website at http://www.iowalegalaid.org/resource/juvenile-record-causing-problems-how-sealing-can-help-1?ref=rBuhQ and http://www.iowalegalaid.org/resource/life-after-a-juvenile-record?ref=IKbXp.
Iowa Legal Aid provides free legal assistance to low-income Iowans in all 99 counties with civil legal problems involving basic necessities and safety. Information about civil legal issues is available on Iowa Legal Aid’s websites, www.iowalegalaid.org and www.probono.net/iowa. Probono.net/iowa is a free, members-only site that provides a comprehensive collection of information on legal topics, upcoming events including continuing legal education opportunities, and resources on civil law practice for members of Iowa’s justice community.