First Amendment proponents are applauding yesterday’s NJ Supreme Court decision, which dealt an apparent blow to privacy advocates by holding that the fact that a conviction was expunged does not negate its truth for the purposes of using it as a defense to defamation. As I explained here, defamation claims are not common because they are difficult to win. There are four elements of the claim, and even if you can prove all four elements, the defendant can still escape liability by showing that the allegedly defamatory statements were true. In attorney-speak, we say: truth is a complete, or absolute defense to defamation. That sounds pretty straight-forward, right? After all, doesn’t everyone know the difference between the truth and a lie? As more than one of our recent U.S. Presidents can attest, sometimes truth isn’t so black and white.

Expungement is the process of sealing the record of a criminal conviction, usually for first-time offenders. Expungement is not a constitutional right; it’s created by statute, under state law. In fact, I am aware of only about a dozen states that allow it. And in each state that does allow it, different rules and requirements apply. Also, each state treats the effect of an expungement differently. For example, some states, like Washington, treat an expungement as though the crime never occurred. If you get an expungement in Washington State, state law gives you the right to tell anyone that you were not convicted of the crime in question. Similarly, for most purposes, the state of Ohio treats an expunged conviction as though it never happened, however, in some limited circumstances, the record of conviction may be later accessed by courts or law enforcement. Needless to say, not every crime is eligible to expungement, and not every convict is entitled to one. Generally speaking, serious crimes, violent crimes, and sex crimes cannot be expunged.

In the case decided yesterday by the NJ Supreme Court, the plaintiff (known only as G.D.) sued former state senator Bernard Kenny and the Hudson County Democratic Organization for defamation, based on their printing of campaign flyers stating that the plaintiff was a convicted drug dealer. G.D. was in fact convicted of drug possession back in 1993, and he served about 8 months in prison out of a five-year sentence. But G.D.’s conviction was expunged in 2006.

Justice Barry T. Albin delivered the court’s opinion:

The relief provided by the expungement statute, however, does not include the wholesale rewriting of history. A person convicted of a first-time crime may petition for expungement of all records and information” relating to the conviction after the passage of ten years from the date of the conviction, payment of fine, satisfactory completion of probation or parole, or release from incarceration, whichever is later. (quoting N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a)). A court order of expungement does not result in the destruction of criminal records.

For anyone keeping score, Justice Albin is a democrat (McGreevey appointee); he also happens to be a former criminal law attorney, past president of the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and served on the court’s Criminal Practice Committee from 1987 to 1992. He continued to say that:

Common sense tells us that an arrest or conviction may become general knowledge within a community and that people will not banish from their memories stored knowledge even if they become aware of an expungement order. And long before the entry of an expungement order, information about an arrest and conviction may be compiled by data aggregators and disseminated to companies interested in conducting background checks.

Although the court’s ruling isn’t likely to impact criminal law much, if even at all, it will serve as one more potential hurdle that a plaintiff must clear to successfully make a case for defamation.

Download pdf of the NJ Supreme Court’s decision in G.D. v. Kenny, et al., No. A-85-09 (Jan. 31, 2011).