New Jersey State Police continue to disclose the criminal histories of people whose records were court-ordered to be expunged, according to a class action lawsuit filed on Monday. The complaint, brought by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender (OPD), alleges that plaintiffs have been denied jobs and other opportunities after police improperly shared their records with potential employers or state agencies.
In 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that streamlined the expungement process and provided the state Division of Law and Public Safety with $15 million to implement reforms. At the time, advocates applauded the law for giving a second chance to New Jerseyans with convictions.
But almost four years later, the NJSP has amassed a backlog of more than 46,000 expungement orders, according to the class action suit filed on behalf of six anonymous plaintiffs and thousands of others waiting for police to expunge their records. The complaint calls for the court to compel the NJSP to process expungement orders in a “timely” manner, though OPD does not specify a timeframe.
After a court grants an expungement, the NJSP must process the order before a record can officially be sealed. But in some cases, the agency has taken more than a year to do so, according to the complaint.
“Because of this delay, criminal records that should have been expunged have instead been repeatedly shared with employers,” reads the complaint. “Other people who have obtained expungements are inhibited from submitting applications without assurance that their expunged records will not be exposed.”
A spokesperson for the NJSP told The Appeal that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The NJSP’s delays in processing expungements have caused fear and confusion among those waiting for their records to be cleared, according to the lawsuit.
A 71-year-old plaintiff identified by the initials E.E. is reluctant to apply for substitute teaching jobs because she doesn’t know if state police have processed her expungements of two drug convictions from about 20 years ago, the complaint states. (The plaintiffs are identified by pseudonym initials in the court filing.) Further complicating matters, the NJSP no longer sends confirmation letters notifying people that their records have been expunged. Advocates say the state Administrative Office of the Courts has also removed an online notification feature.
“What I did in the past is not who I am today,” E.E. said in a statement to The Appeal. “I worked hard to correct the flaws in my decisions, and the expungement brought me the hopes of a new beginning. The NJSP’s failure to process my expungement order diminishes the promise that my expungement brought me.”
Another plaintiff, A.A., has been waiting since December 2021 for his record to be expunged. He has repeatedly tried to volunteer to coach his son’s sports teams but has been turned away after an expunged record showed up on background checks, according to the complaint.
Among those waiting for expungements to be processed are victims of human trafficking whose convictions were shown to be the result of their victimization, according to a press release from the OPD.
“The stigma is an especially painful reminder of victimization for survivors of human trafficking,” said Karen Robinson, the managing attorney for Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, a legal services organization based in Newark, New Jersey, in the OPD press release.
In another case, a court granted plaintiff C.C.’s request for an expungement in September 2022. But when she applied for a massage therapy license last month, a background check revealed her criminal history. Once she showed her expungement order to the state Division of Consumer Affairs, the agency that oversees licensing, she was granted her license, according to the complaint.
“I feel slighted and wronged,” C.C. said in a statement to The Appeal. “Deep down, with patience, fervor, and the help of the justice system yet again, my heart tells me the right thing will get done, yet we must fight for it. All of us who are affected by the behavior of the NJSP deserve justice.”