Criminal Law - First Circuit Holds Federal Courts Lack Jurisdiction to Expunge Criminal Records on Equitable Grounds

By Thornton, Gabriel T. | Suffolk University Law Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Criminal Law - First Circuit Holds Federal Courts Lack Jurisdiction to Expunge Criminal Records on Equitable Grounds


Thornton, Gabriel T., Suffolk University Law Review


Criminal Law--First Circuit Holds Federal Courts Lack Jurisdiction to Expunge Criminal Records on Equitable Grounds--United States v. Coloian, 480 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 128 S. Ct. 377 (2007)

Federal courts have ordered the expungement of a defendant's criminal record when the criminal proceeding was unlawful. (1) When the defendant bases her request for expungement on equitable grounds, however, federal courts differ on whether they have jurisdiction to consider the request. (2) In United States v. Coloian, (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit considered whether a district court had jurisdiction to hear a motion to expunge a criminal record on equitable grounds. (4) The court held that the district court did not have jurisdiction to consider the motion. (5)

Artin Coloian is an attorney and was the Chief of Staff to the former Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. (6) In 2001, a federal grand jury indicted Coloian on charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery. (7) The following year, after a four-day trial, a jury acquitted Coloian of both charges. (8)

In 2005, Coloian filed a motion to expunge in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. (9) Coloian argued that the court should expunge his record for reasons of equity: to prevent harm to his reputation and career. (10) In response to Coloian's motion, the government argued that the district court did not have jurisdiction to expunge a record on equitable grounds, and, in the alternative, if the court did have jurisdiction, then Coloian did not deserve expungement. (11)

The district court, in an oral disposition, held that federal courts have inherent authority to expunge criminal records, but they should use that power sparingly. (12) If Coloian's prosecution was unlawful or his criminal record constituted an extreme hardship, expungement would have been appropriate. (13) Finding that Coloian failed on both counts, the district court refused to expunge his record. (14) On appeal, the First Circuit held that the district court did not have jurisdiction to consider a request to expunge criminal records based on equitable grounds. (15)

When an arrest or prosecution violates federal law, courts may order the expungement of a suspect's or defendant's criminal record. (16) A court order to expunge a criminal record, however, is an extraordinary remedy. (17) In specific circumstances, federal law expressly allows for expungement. (18) In general, though, Congress favors the preservation of criminal records. (19)

When federal law does not provide for expungement of a criminal record, federal courts may only consider expungement requests using ancillary jurisdiction. (20) Ancillary jurisdiction covers claims incidental to a district court's original jurisdiction over a criminal prosecution. (21) The Supreme Court defined the contours of ancillary jurisdiction in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America. (22) Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Scalia described the two uses of ancillary jurisdiction: to allow a single court to dispose of "factually interdependent" claims; and to "enable a court to function successfully, that is, to manage its proceedings, vindicate its authority, and effectuate its decrees." (23) When courts refer to the "inherent power" of a court to consider a claim, they refer to the latter of these two uses of ancillary jurisdiction. (24)

The Third, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits use Justice Scalia's description of ancillary jurisdiction to determine that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to consider the expungement of criminal records absent a claim of unlawful arrest or prosecution. (25) In contrast, the Second, Fourth, Seventh, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits hold that district courts may consider the expungement of records for reasons of equity. (26) Even those courts that allow consideration of a motion to expunge on equitable grounds seldom, if ever, grant expungement. …

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