Change in state law offers 'fresh start' for some offenders

The new year is all about fresh starts. A recent change in Ohio law means that more people are now eligible to have their criminal records sealed. Effective Oct. 29, 2018, the definition of “eligible offender” changed and is now much broader.

In Ohio, an adult criminal record can be sealed so that the conviction or criminal charge is filed separately from a person’s record. However, the record can never be completely erased. It is still available to some; for instance, judges, law enforcement, certain employers (such as schools), and most professional licensing boards can gain access to the sealed record, but most employers, landlords, and the public cannot see the record.

Prior to the change, a person could have not more than one felony conviction, not more than two misdemeanor convictions, or not more than one felony conviction and one misdemeanor conviction. That still applies, but now, you can also have as many as five felonies and an unlimited number of misdemeanors, provided you have no convictions for violent or sexually oriented felony offenses, and none of your convictions are for misdemeanor offenses of violence, and you do not have any first-, second-, or third-degree felonies.

Even with the expanded definition, there are certain convictions that can never be sealed. For example, first- and second-degree felonies, or any offense with a mandatory prison term, cannot be sealed. Similarly, most offenses of violence, such as domestic violence, cannot be sealed. Traffic offenses also cannot be sealed; however, most of these offenses are not counted as a criminal conviction.

There are other limitations as well. For example, an application to have a record sealed cannot be made until the expiration of three years after an offender’s final discharge if convicted of a felony, or one year after an offender’s final discharge if convicted of a misdemeanor. That final discharge means the offender has finished serving any jail or prison sentence, any term of probation or parole, and paid all fines and court costs.

If you wish, or someone you know wishes, to apply for this fresh start for a conviction in Cleveland Heights, the process begins with the filing of an Application to Seal with the clerk of court. You will be given a hearing date for when the application will be heard. Between the date of filing and the date of that hearing, you may need to meet with the Probation Department so that it can prepare a report concerning the potential sealing.

At that hearing, I, as judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court, will determine whether you are an eligible offender. If so, I will listen to your reasons for requesting that your record be sealed and determine whether you have been rehabilitated. If the city prosecutor objects, I will consider the reasons against granting the application. Finally, I will weigh your interests in having the conviction sealed against the legitimate needs, if any, of the government to maintain those records. If I grant your application, you are on your way to that fresh start.

There is a packet available at the clerk’s office that sets forth the statutory requirements and steps that must be followed to apply to have your record sealed. The packet also includes an Application to Seal form to fill out. If at any point you feel that the process is too confusing or intimidating, you should speak to an attorney. The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland may assist with record sealing for qualified low-income people. Otherwise, you can contact the local bar associations to find an attorney to assist you.

This article provides general information and is not a substitute for individualized legal advice. For answers to specific questions, you should consult an attorney.

James Costello

James Costello is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.

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Volume 12, Issue 1, Posted 11:46 AM, 01.02.2019