In a reverse of course, the Rhode Island Attorney General is now in favor of expunging the criminal records of defendants who have entered into a deferred sentence agreement after 5 years. This is slightly surprising (and a tad bit ironic) because it was the same Attorney General who opposed this just a few years ago. The new bill would restore the practice that had been occurring in Rhode Island courts before the Supreme Court's decision in State v. Briggs.
To completely understand the new bill, one must understand the nature of a deferred sentence and expungments. First of all, deferred sentences are only available to those charged with a felony. In a deferred sentence agreement, a defendant enters a plea of nolo contendere. This is otherwise known as a plea of 'no contest'. Under Rhode Island law it is an admission to the criminal offense and is the equivalent of a guilty plea.
In most criminal cases, once an admission is made, the Court sentences the defendant to whatever the Court deems appropriate given the admitted facts and circumstances. However, in a deferred sentence agreement, the Court defers sentencing the defendant for a period of 5 years. If the defendant commits no other criminal offenses during that 5 year period, at the expiration of the 5 years, the case is, for all practical purposes, over. At that stage the Court could no longer sentence the defendant. If the defendant does commit another crime within the 5 year period, the Court could then impose a sentence on the defendant on the original criminal case.
Under Rhode Island law, in order for a case to be expunged, amongst other requirements, the defendant must be a first offender and must wait 5 years (for misdemeanors) or 10 years (for felonies) from the expiration of the sentence to get the case expunged. So if a defendant was sentenced to 5 years of probation for a felony offense, that defendant (assuming he/she committed no other criminal offenses) would have to wait 15 years to get the record expunged. In other words, that defendant would have to wait 10 years from the date his/her probation expired.
In my experience, the practice in Rhode Island courts on deferred sentence agreement cases was that as long as the defendant committed no other criminal offenses during the 5 year deferred sentence period, the Court would expunge the record. In State v. Briggs however, the Rhode Island Supreme Court, in keeping with its precedent in other cases, deemed the entry of the admission to be the equivalent of a conviction for expungement purposes. That means that a defendant who received a deferred sentence would now have to wait 10 years from the expiration of the case for which he/she was NOT sentenced to get the case expunged. to many, this result was a non sequitor.
The new bill would allow the defendant to expunge his record after the 5 year deferred period.