Norfolk DA pushes campaign to help people expunge some mistakes in the past
The chief law enforcement officer in Norfolk County is launching a campaign Thursday to help people rewrite their life stories — by obliterating their criminal past.
Michael Morrissey, the district attorney for the mostly suburban county, believes far too few people know about a change in the state’s criminal history laws that now allows for the complete expungment in certain cases, provided the person comes forward and asks for the change themselves.
The law, approved by lawmakers and Governor Charlie Baker earlier this year, expands the public’s right to control the narrative of their own lives and to no longer be bound by government records. People have been able to seal records for years, but the new law goes much further.
“We are not talking about sealing your record. We are talking about making it disappear, expunged, gone,’’ Morrissey said in a recent interview. “We are not talking about decriminalizing anything.”
Morrissey does not see any contradiction for someone in his position — the person ultimately responsible for obtaining criminal convictions — is now actively campaigning to eliminate the work of his own prosecutors and of those that held his office before him.
“I am a firm believer that everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “For some people, they’ve led an admirable life, and now they want to clean up a minor indiscretion when they were younger. I am all for it.”
Citing an example of someone who could benefit from the new law, Morrissey said he recently met a man who was working as a security guard at a construction site in 1973, and had to crawl through the window of his employer’s trailer parked at a construction site. A neighbor alerted police to a possible break-in, he said.
Responding police confirmed the man was a security guard, but when they asked him for identification, a single marijuana joint fell out of his wallet — and he was arrested on drug charges. “Over the years, he believes it may have cost him a security clearance’’ in the defense industry, Morrissey said.
Now that small amounts of marijuana are not only legal in Massachusetts but sold over the counter in retail stores, Morrissey said the man should no longer be haunted — or economically punished — by a conviction under an obsolete law.
According to the state Probation Department, which will play a key role under the new law, the measure does not specify what criminal charges qualify for expungment. Instead, the law clearly spells out what will remain part of a personal history.
■ A person’s tie to the courts for a misdemeanor conviction, including probation, must have ended at least three years ago. For a felony, it must be at least 7 years in the past.
■ Crimes of violence, including sexual assaults against children and weapons-related charges or other types of dangerous weapons, do not qualify. Operating under the influence convictions will stay on the books.
■ Victims must not have been elderly, disabled, or a family member.
Morrissey is hosting a public form in Quincy Thursday night at the Quincy Elks building on Quarry Street. Officials from probation, the state court system, the House will be providing guidance on how to complete the process.
“We want to help people,’’ Morrissey said. “If we are not all working together, we are not going to get good results.”
The process requires a person to provide probation with the information they want to delete, and the district attorney’s office is given the chance to veto expungement. If approved, the courts then remove data from the public docket and destroy any file or paperwork that has survived.
Morrissey notes that in the past, someone who rushed to help someone overdosing could be prosecuted for being present where heroin was used. Now, police generally arrive with life-saving Narcan and the public is urged to ask for their help, not hide.
He also suggests someone convicted of disorderly conduct, trespassing, or some other minor nuisance offense should consider trying the new process.
“These are crimes that are years old. Young people do stupid things,’’ Morrissey said. “Their brains are still developing into their 20s. You can’t have a giant record, we are talking about people who truly have made THE mistake.”