Kentucky High Court Rules Low-Income People Shouldn't Have to Pay to Have Records Expunged

The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a citizen who was unable to expunge his criminal record because of his income.

Frederick Jones asked to erase a 1998 felony theft conviction from his court records. However, he was unable to pay the $340 in fees to remove the crime. After being denied in lower courts, the Kentucky Supreme Court decided that he and others should not have to pay for a felony expungement under the state's "in forma pauperis" statute.

"We can identify no other situation in our commonwealth where a judge renders a judgment that a litigant is entitled to a benefit under the law, but that litigant cannot obtain the benefit of that judgment unless and until he pays a fee," wrote Justice Michelle Keller in the unanimous opinion.

Under the new ruling, low-income people previously convicted of traffic, misdemeanor and select non-violent felony cases can bypass the fees needed to file an expungement. Some of these fees include a $50 filing fee, a $40 certificate of eligibility fee and a $250 expungement cost.

"There shouldn't be a class divide when it comes to the justice system," said policy strategist Kungu Njuguna to local newspaper The Lexington Herald-Leader. "The lack of a fee waiver was another obstacle to successful reentry because housing, employment and services are vital for a real second chance."

"It's extremely important," Jones' attorney Michael Abate argued. "There are hundreds of thousands of people in this state who have been disenfranchised by a felony conviction."

gavel, judge
Under a new ruling in Kentucky, low-income people previously convicted of traffic, misdemeanor and select non-violent felony cases can bypass the fees needed to file an expungement. Above, a judge's gavel on a table. Getty Images

Abate argued that expunging old criminal convictions could help hundreds of state residents with getting jobs, voting and participating in their kids' school activities, along with other benefits.

Jones' case will now be sent back to Jefferson Circuit Court for expungement, WDRB-TV reported.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron argued that expungement of a case was not a constitutional right and fees were required under state law.

According to WDRB-TV, Kentucky lawmakers have proposed waiving the fees in past years as old convictions and even unproven charges can continue to show up on employer background checks. All of these proposals have fallen flat.

"We recognize the hardship our holding may place on the agencies who benefit from the expungement fee," Justice Keller wrote. "However, we cannot allow that potential hardship to color our analysis of the statutes at issue. We merely interpret the statutes as enacted by the General Assembly."

A conviction is eligible to be expunged five years after any jail or probation sentence is served or restitution is paid. People are not allowed to expunge multiple felony cases.

Once a case is expunged, all records are sealed and no longer accessible by the public or government officials. If asked about an expunged case, court clerks are required to say that it doesn't exist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.