A case involving a Somers Point man seeking to erase the record of his drug conviction has led the state Supreme Court to set specific rules for when judges can ‘expunge’ a person’s criminal record.
Ronald C. Kollman Jr., of Somers Point, will be able to again petition the local court to expunge his third-degree distribution conviction for selling ecstasy in 2001 — but the burden of proof will be on him and other petitioners., according to the ruling announced Monday.
Expungement means that criminal records are “extracted and isolated,” but remain available to the courts, prosecutors and probation officers.
The case has statewide implications, but Kollman was reluctant to be the center of attention. “It’s ironic that my criminal record is likely to be expunged in a published case of the New Jersey Supreme Court where my name will always be associated with my expunged conviction,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
“I knew when I brought the appeal that winning would almost be as bad as losing, publicity wise, but I wanted to make sure that others, like me, who had made a foolish mistake at a young age and have since lived an exemplary life, would be able to live without a dark cloud hovering above restricting opportunities.
“Everyone makes mistakes and not everyone gets another chance. I will have that now, if the trial court makes what I believe to be the right decision based on the Supreme Court’s guidance.”
New Jersey Judges must look at an applicant’s rehabilitation and character, the ruling stresses.
In 2010, Kollman filed a petition to expunge his conviction, “offering proof that he had completed college, worked full time while in school and was active in various community service projects,” the ruling states. “He also provided 21 letters of support describing his work habits, community involvement, character, and personal growth in recent years. Kollman certified that he had not been in any further trouble with the law.”
The state opposed the petition “based on the nature of Kollman’s conviction and the community’s need for continued access to his criminal record.”
A trial court and the Appellate Division both denied the petition.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, writing an opinion based on a unanimous court ruling, reversed that denial and returned the case to trial court, “to assess the petitioner’s character and conduct as of the date of its new ruling.”
“Defendants seeking relief under the statute’s new five-year pathway to expungement have the burden of proving why expungement of a criminal record is in the public interest,” Rabner wrote. “Because petitioner appears to have met that burden, the court reverses the denial of his expungement application.
“Kollman has led an exemplary and law-abiding life since his conviction, which weighs heavily in favor of expungement,” Rabner wrote. “The court remands to the trial court to weigh the relevant factors in light of the principles set forth in this opinion and to assess Kollman’s character and conduct as of the date of its new ruling.”
Prior to 2010, expungement was available 10 years after completion of the sentence, but a 2010 law reduced that to five years if there have been no additional convictions and if expungement is in the “public interest,” adding that the petitioners bear the burden of proving that expungement is in the public interest.
Rabner ruled that courts consider both the “nature of the offense” and the applicant’s “character and conduct since conviction.”
“Kollman met the basic criteria that five years had passed since his conviction, he had not been convicted of any subsequent offenses, and he was convicted of a third-degree CDS offense,” Rabner wrote. “The trial court denied the application based on the right of the community to be aware of the convictions and because of the ‘relatively serious nature of the offense.’“
The fact that Kollman was employed when he sold the drugs “should have been weighed alongside the substantial evidence of character and conduct since Kollman’s conviction, which received little attention.”
Linwood attorney Robert Herman, who represented Kollman, said that “essentially, it’s recognizing that people make mistakes. ... The idea of expungement is for when people make an error at one point in their life, they recognize that error, and they change.
“Kollman made a mistake, accepted responsibility for it, (and) didn’t just make amends, he went out and set an example.”
Akil Roper, an assistant general counsel with Legal Services of New Jersey who argued the case before the court, said it was “a very good decision.”
“What the court says is that (lower courts) have to affect a real balance between the nature of a conviction and the applicant’s nature and conduct. It’s very important that the Supreme Court placed a lot of emphasis on rehabilitation. ... It’s going to impact a large number of people in the state of New Jersey.”
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