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Fuller v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

October 21, 2014

DANA FULLER, Defendant-Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Below, Appellee

Submitted September 17, 2014

Case Closed November 7, 2014.

Court Below: Family Court in the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County. Cr. Nos. 0606013475 and 0405021269.

Dana Fuller, Defendant Below-Appellant, Pro se.

Achille C. Scache, Esquire, Doroshow, Pasquale, Krawitz & Bhaya, Wilmington, Delaware and Kara M. Swasey, Esquire (argued), Wilmington, Delaware, Amicus Curiae by Court Appointment.

Morgan T. Zurn, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, RIDGELY, and VALIHURA, Justices; and DAVIS, Judge,[*] constituting the Court en Banc. VALIHURA Justice, dissenting, with DAVIS, Judge, joining.

OPINION

STRINE, Chief Justice, for the majority:

Dana Fuller appeals a Family Court decision denying her petition for expungement of her juvenile record because she had committed three traffic violations as an adult. Section 1018 of the Delaware Code allows a court to grant a petition for expungement of a juvenile record " provided the petitioner has no other subsequent adjudication of delinquency or adult conviction." [1] In this case, the Family Court

Page 818

held that Fuller's violations of Title 21, which governs motor vehicles, were " subsequent . . . adult convictions" (" subsequent adult convictions" )[2] within the meaning of § 1018. But the Family Court has reached different conclusions in other cases as to whether a traffic violation under Title 21 of the Delaware Code is a subsequent adult conviction that precludes expungement of a juvenile record.[3] Consistent with a prior Family Court decision, Fuller now argues that Title 21 offenses are not " subsequent adult convictions" under § 1018 and the denial of her expungement was therefore erroneous.

After careful consideration, we hold that a " subsequent adult conviction" is a later conviction only for a crime in violation of Title 4, 7, 11, 16, or 23 of the Delaware Code, and does not include a violation of Title 21. This interpretation is most faithful to the plain language of § 1018, which uses the general term " subsequent" -- i.e., later -- " criminal conviction" in a sentence that earlier refers to crimes set forth in Titles 4, 7, 11, 16, or 23, but not Title 21. Moreover, § 1015, the provision that sets forth a specific application process for expungement, requires the use of a database that does not include Title 21 offenses, but does include offenses under Titles 4, 7, 11, 16, or 23. Our interpretation also best reflects the express statutory purpose of " protect[ing] children and citizens from unwarranted damage which may occur as a result of a juvenile arrest record, even if the arrest resulted in an adjudication of delinquency." [4] Accordingly, we reverse the Family Court's decision and hold that Title 21 motor vehicle violations do not constitute " subsequent adult convictions" for purposes of expungement of a juvenile record.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The relevant facts from the record below are undisputed. Fuller was twice adjudicated delinquent in Family Court. The first offense occurred when Fuller was 12 years old, and she pled delinquent in Family Court to one count of criminal mischief on August 13, 2004.[5] For a second offense committed when she was 14 years old, Fuller pled delinquent to one count of theft on April 29, 2008.[6]

Between the ages of 18 and 21, Fuller committed three motor vehicle violations. First, on November 14, 2009, Fuller received a ticket for lacking headlamps on her car in violation of 21 Del. C. § 4333.[7] Second, Fuller was found guilty of Careless Driving in 2012 for an offense committed in 2010.[8] Finally, Fuller was found guilty of Speeding in Excess of 25 MPH in a Residential District in January 2013.[9]

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In a petition dated April 15, 2013, Fuller sought discretionary expungement of her juvenile record under 10 Del. C. § 1018.[10] The State did not oppose her petition. But the Family Court denied the petition on June 14, 2013 because Fuller had been convicted of three Title 21 traffic violations as an adult.[11] The Family Court held that these violations were " subsequent adult convictions" within the meaning of § 1018 that precluded expungement.[12] Fuller appealed, arguing that these traffic violations should not have been considered " subsequent adult convictions" under § 1018.

II. THE JUVENILE EXPUNGEMENT STATUTE

The General Assembly has set forth the procedures governing applications for the expungement of a juvenile record in § § 1014-1019 of the Delaware Code. We refer to these sections collectively as the " juvenile expungement statute." A person may seek expungement of her juvenile record under 10 Del. C. § 1017 or 10 Del. C. § 1018, depending on the nature of the juvenile record.[13] Both § 1017 and § 1018 allow the Family Court to grant a petition for expungement provided the petitioner has no " subsequent adjudication of delinquency or adult conviction."

Section 1016 defines " subsequent adjudication of delinquency or adult conviction" as " an adult conviction resulting from the commission of a separate and distinct offense that occurs after a prior adjudication of delinquency" " unless the context otherwise requires." It does not define " offense" or " adult conviction," nor does it refer to any other part of the Delaware Code. Likewise, § 1016(5) defines a " prior adjudication of delinquency" as " an adjudication of delinquency entered by the Court, that occurs prior to the commission of a separate and distinct offense" without defining " offense" or " adjudication of delinquency" or referring to any other part of the Delaware Code.

Section 1015 of the juvenile expungement statute requires the person seeking expungement to file a petition with the Family Court.[14] The petition must include a copy " of that petitioner's criminal history as maintained by the State Bureau of Identification." [15] If the expungement petition meets the requirements of § 1018(a), the Family Court's inquiry shifts to whether the " continued existence and possible dissemination of information relating to the arrest of the petitioner causes, or may cause, circumstances which constitute a manifest injustice to the petitioner." [16] If the Court so finds, it may grant the expungement request. The statute incorporates a rebuttable presumption that " juvenile arrest records cause a manifest injustice for the petitioner." [17] This presumption accords with the Delaware General Assembly's Statement of Policy within the juvenile expungement statute, which reads:

The General Assembly finds that juvenile arrest records are a hindrance to a person's present and future ability to

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obtain employment, obtain an education, or to obtain credit. This subchapter is intended to protect children and citizens from unwarranted damage which may occur as a result of a juvenile arrest record, even if the arrest resulted in an adjudication of delinquency.[18]

That policy presumption may well have influenced the State's position in the case below. The State did not oppose Fuller's petition before the Family Court. But the Family Court nonetheless denied the request, feeling obligated to do so by its reading of the juvenile expungement statute. In its decision to deny Fuller's petition, the Family Court adopted the reasoning of a prior decision of that court in M.S. v. State, which concluded that a motor vehicle offense constitutes a " subsequent adult conviction" precluding expungement under Title 10.[19]

In interpreting the juvenile expungement statute in this way, M.S. v. State relied on a dictionary definition of " conviction," which is a " judgment . . . that a person is guilty of a crime." [20] The Family Court then compared that general definition to the general definition of a criminal conviction found in the Delaware Code, which is set forth in 11 Del. C. § 233. Because § 233 states that a " crime" or " offense" is an act punishable by a fine or imprisonment, and because Title 21 offenses are punishable by a fine or imprisonment, M.S. v. State concluded that Title 21 violations committed after the age of majority are " subsequent adult convictions." [21] The decision also noted that certain violations in Title 21 are explicitly designated as civil, and that the General Assembly's determination that the remainder are criminal under the meaning of § 233 could therefore not be seen as inadvertent.[22]

The Family Court, however, has also reached a different conclusion on this issue. In C.M. v. State, the Family Court held that the petitioner's adult speeding violation did not constitute a " subsequent adult conviction" for purposes of § 1017 because a contrary interpretation would lead to an unreasonable result.[23] In so holding, the Family Court compared § 1017 with the statutes that provide for discretionary expungement of an adult record, all of which allow persons to seek expungement despite having convictions for other criminal offenses.[24] Thus, under the M.S. court's interpretation of the juvenile expungement statute, a person with a traffic violation could have her adult record expunged in the discretion of the Superior Court, but the same traffic violation would serve as a total bar to the expungement of her juvenile record. The Family Court concluded that this reading of the statute was unreasonable in light of the General Assembly's express intent " to treat juveniles and juvenile arrest records

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in a relatively lenient manner for expungement purposes. ...


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