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U.S. Supreme Court Appeal: In Iowa, Convicted Criminals Can Have Their Records Expunged, But Those Too Poor to Pay Court Debts Are Not So Lucky

Many Americans struggle to find work because of arrest records, even if they were never convicted or charged with a crime, because they cannot afford to pay court fees

Money, Fees, Citations, and Gavel in a pile on a table

Arlington, Va.—An Iowa woman is trapped in a Catch-22. Years ago, she was arrested but then never convicted of a crime. The arrest is a public record, standing as a barrier to her getting a good job. By paying her debt to the court system, she could wipe her record clean, a process known as expungement. Yet without stable employment, she cannot afford to pay her debt. The Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit, public interest law firm, and the Collateral Consequences Resource Center filed an amicus brief calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case, Jane Doe v. Iowa, and find that one’s inability to pay court fees should not be a barrier to the right to expungement.

“Americans caught up in the justice system, whether or not they were convicted, face significant barriers to employment,” said IJ Senior Attorney William Maurer. “Iowa granted individuals the right to wipe their record clean, but only if they can afford it. The right to start fresh and find a good job should not be restricted just to people of means.”

A criminal record, and even arrests that do not result in a conviction, can serve as a barrier to voting, employment, education, government licenses, housing and public benefits. These barriers are collectively known as collateral consequences, and they affect 70 to 100 million American adults who have encountered the criminal justice system. IJ defends Americans’ right to earn a living in the occupation of their choice without unnecessary government interference and is currently challenging a collateral consequence provision for cosmetology licenses in Pennsylvania.

Across the country, there are about 30,000 laws making it harder for people with criminal histories to work. There is a growing consensus that this harsh approach is not working. Allowing individuals to support themselves is critical to preventing repeat offenses. An Arizona State University report found that in states where the government makes it harder for people to get jobs through licensing requirements, recidivism rates grow.

In Jane Doe’s case, her criminal charges were dismissed, but her arrest remains a matter of public record that employers can discover with a routine background check. Finding a job that pays enough to meet her needs and save up to expunge her record is extraordinarily difficult. While some states have altered their expungement practices to consider an individual’s ability to pay court debts, Iowa continues to require full payment before wiping a record clean. This violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it makes relief dependent on one’s socioeconomic status.

An Iowa district court rejected Doe’s argument and the Iowa Supreme Court narrowly affirmed. Now Doe is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider taking her case in an upcoming conference.

The amicus brief filed on behalf of the Institute for Justice and the Collateral Consequences Resource Center was written by Thomas M. Bondy and Ethan P. Fallon of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in Washington, D.C.

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