Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz, left, and Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry talk after a hearing where Horwitz presented a case for the mass expungement of 350,000 cases involving 128,000 people. (Photo: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean)
Nashville, Tennessee—More than one hundred thousand (100,000) Nashville residents may soon benefit from a groundbreaking class action motion that was filed in Davidson County General Sessions Court on Tuesday. The motion – filed by Nashville Attorney Daniel A. Horwitz – was supported by Glenn Funk, the Davidson County District Attorney, and Howard Gentry, the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk. It is the first of its kind in the country.
Tennessee law generaly provides that anyone whose case does not result in a conviction is entitled to have his or her records expunged free of charge if they file a petition for expungement with the Clerk’s office. Because many people cannot afford to take a day off of work or assume that their records are expunged automatically, however, thousands of people who have records that could be expunged end up falling through the cracks every year without filing the necessary paperwork. If granted, the motion filed on Tuesday would give the Clerk’s office the legal authority to begin clearing the backlog automatically.
On September 3rd, Judge Rachel L. Bell called an inter-agency meeting of the ten government agencies involved in processing expungements (the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Criminal Court Clerk, General Sessions Court staff, the TBI, the TDOC, the AOC, the Metro Police Department, the Davidson County Sheriff, and Metro Legal). After several agencies expressed concerns about the cost of processing additional expungements, the cost burden that would result from a class expungement was taken into consideration. “I am committed to ensuring that no agency will be burdened by this proposal,” said Judge Bell. “Knowing that every agency is underfunded with respect to processing expungements, I will propose a graduated implementation schedule to guarantee that no undue burden is placed on any agency involved. I am also committed to ensuring that expungements are processed more quickly. I am excited about this proposal because of the many ways that expungements benefit the public.”
Following a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Rachel L. Bell, Davidson County General Sessions Court Presiding Judge, took Horwitz’s motion under advisement. According to an affidavit filed by the Criminal Court Clerk’s office, the proposal would benefit 128,000 people and apply to 350,000 separate cases that were either not prosecuted due to lack of evidence or were dismissed between the years 2000 and 2012. Only cases that took place in Davidson County General Sessions Court that did not result in a conviction would be affected.
“Nashville is blessed to have public servants like Glenn Funk, Howard Gentry and Rachel L. Bell who care deeply about the community and who are committed to finding innovative ways to serve the public,” said Horwitz, who will be serving as lead class counsel alongside James P. Danly of the D.C. law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “I am honored and humbled to be a part of an effort that will help more than 100,000 individuals who were never convicted of any crime clear their records and gain access to employment. The law should be a force that improves the lives of all people. I am overjoyed that in this case, it finally will be.”
“Consequences for criminal activity should be reserved for those who are guilty,” said District Attorney Glenn Funk.
Several elected officials serving in both the Tennessee General Assembly and the Metro Council have pledged their support for the effort and have already promised to fund it. “Justice demands this momentous undertaking that will remove an undue stain on individual’s records and help ensure their equal opportunity to employment,” said State Representative John Ray Clemmons.
“When a system has such a huge number of people caught in the backlog, it’s time to re-examine the system,” said Metro Council Member Fabian Bedne. “People who have not yet had their records expunged can’t fully contribute to society. Additionally, at a time when Nashville is enjoying unprecedented growth, we need to do what we can to maintain high levels of employment in order to lower costs and tame inflation. This is the right thing to do from both a human and a business perspective.”
Added Metro Council Member Freddie O’Connell: “This is a perfect example of a situation where what seems like a simple bureaucratic measure can have a lasting negative impact on the life of someone who has had an encounter with the justice system. The impact of this simple effort should offer some additional procedural justice to a number of Nashvillians, and I’m glad to see it being supported by the administrators of our justice system.”
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UPDATE (February 3, 2016): An agreement has been reached in Horwitz’s class expungement lawsuit. Nashvillians shall now have the right to file expungements offsite by mail. Information regarding this right is now available at the Criminal Court Clerk’s website here.