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District Court Lacks Jurisdiction to Expunge Valid Record of Conviction

In Jane Doe v. USA, 15-1967, the Second Circuit (Pooler, Livingston, Lohier) vacated the decision of the District Court (Gleeson, J.) granting the petitioner’s motion to expunge all records of her criminal conviction and holding that the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the motion. 

The petitioner was convicted in 2001 for her participation in a health care fraud scheme and sentenced to five years’ probation by the District Court.  In October 2014, the petitioner filed a motion to expunge her conviction because, despite leading an exemplary life since 2001, she had been unable to retain employment due to her record of conviction.  Relying on United States v. Schnitzer, 567 F.2d 536 (2d Cir. 1977) and Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, 511 U.S. 375 (1994), the District Court held that it had ancillary jurisdiction to decide the motion and granted it. 

On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to consider the motion.  The Court distinguished its decision in Schnitzer, in which it held that a court had ancillary jurisdiction to expunge an arrest record following an order of dismissal of the criminal case, emphasizing that the holding was limited to arrest records and did not extend to records of a valid conviction.  Moreover, since Schnitzer, the Supreme Court decided Kokkonen, in which it held that a court may exercise ancillary jurisdiction under two circumstances: “(1) to permit disposition by a single court of claims that are, in varying respects and degrees, factually interdependent, and (2) to enable a court to function successfully, that is, to manage its proceedings, vindicate its authority, and effectuate its decrees.”  The Second Circuit concluded that neither of the circumstances set forth in Kokkenen were present here: the sentence had long ago concluded and the expungement of a record of conviction for equitable reasons was unrelated to the court’s ability to “manage its proceedings, vindicate its authority, and effectuate its decrees.”  Furthermore, the court concluded, the petitioner’s conviction and motion were not “factually interdependent”—indeed, the motion involved facts arising long after the conviction and sentencing.  The Second Circuit noted its sympathy with the petitioner’s situation and observed that Congress could grant courts jurisdiction to entertain such a motion under these circumstances.  In a concurrence, Judge Livingston expressed skepticism that the Second Circuit’s decision in Schnitzer had survived Kokkonen and declined to join the majority’s discussion regarding the merits of Congress granting courts jurisdiction to entertain a motion to expunge the record of a valid conviction in like circumstances.

Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP represented amici curiae the New York Council of Defense Lawyers & the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in this appeal.

-By Elena Steiger Reich and Harry Sandick