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United States v. James

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

September 1, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
SEAN JAMES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR EXPUNGEMENT [DKT. NO. 642]

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is the pro se motion for expungement filed by the defendant, Sean James (“James”), which asks the Court to expunge his arrest and criminal record relating to this case.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that it lacks jurisdiction to grant James the relief he requests and must therefore DENY the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 3, 2002, James was one of thirteen defendants charged in a thirty-count indictment filed in U.S. District Court. He ultimately pleaded guilty to Count 25, distribution of .67 grams of cocaine base. Now, fifteen years later, James has served his sentence and completed his term of supervised release. In order to advance his career and continue his work in the community, he requests that the Court expunge his arrest and record. Based on the following analysis, however, this Court concludes that it lacks jurisdiction to expunge James's arrest and conviction records.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Court must answer two questions regarding the motion for expungement. First, does any statutory or regulatory authority support expungement? Second, does the Court have jurisdiction to consider the motion for expungement? The answer to both questions is no.

         There is no statute or regulation authorizing the expungement of the records of James's arrest and conviction. Although there are statutes that permit expungement for overturned convictions or to correct inaccurate government records, these do not provide for the kind of equitable relief James seeks. See e.g., 10 U.S.C. § 1565(e), 42 U.S.C. § 14132(d), 18 U.S.C. § 3607(c), and 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g).

         The only colorable jurisdictional basis for his requested relief is the doctrine of ancillary jurisdiction. Despite the limited jurisdiction of federal courts, the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that federal courts do possess “ancillary jurisdiction . . . over some matters (otherwise beyond their competence) that are incidental to other matters properly before them.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 378 (1994). Kokkonen held that federal courts may invoke the doctrine of ancillary jurisdiction where necessary “to permit disposition by a single court of claims that are . . . factually interdependent, ” and “to enable a court to function successfully, that is, to manage its proceeding, vindicate its authority, and effectuate its decrees.” Id. at 379-80.

         Since Kokkonen, seven circuit courts of appeals have held that district courts lack ancillary jurisdiction to hear requests for expungement of criminal records on purely equitable grounds. Beginning with United States v. Sumner, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a “district court does not have ancillary jurisdiction in a criminal case to expunge an arrest or conviction record where the sole basis alleged by the defendant is that he or she seeks equitable relief.” 226 F.3d 1005, 1015 (9th Cir. 2000). Similarly, the Second Circuit and Eighth Circuit have held that district courts lack ancillary jurisdiction to hear motions for expungement in cases involving lawful convictions. See also Doe v. United States, 833 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2016) (holding that district court “lacked jurisdiction to consider [petitioner's] motion to expunge records of a valid conviction”); United States v. Meyer, 439 F.3d 855 (8th Cir. 2006) (concluding that, “in light of Kokkonen, . . . ancillary jurisdiction does not extend to expungement of a criminal conviction where the petitioner asserts solely equitable grounds”).

         The First and Third Circuits have expounded on the impact of Kokkonen, explaining that, even in cases resulting in acquittal, “Kokkonen forecloses any ancillary jurisdiction to order expungement.” United States v. Coloian, 480 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2007); see also United States v. Dunegan, 251 F.3d 477 (3d Cir. 2001) (finding that “a District Court does not have jurisdiction to expunge a criminal record, even when ending in an acquittal”).

         Other circuit courts have concluded that Kokkonen goes even further, holding that district courts lack ancillary jurisdiction to expunge criminal records even in those cases where charges against the defendant are dismissed. See United States v. Field, 756 F.3d 911 (6th Cir. 2014) (“[Federal courts lack ancillary jurisdiction over motions for expungement that are grounded on purely equitable considerations-e.g., motions alleging that the movant has maintained good conduct and that the record of arrest harms the movant's employment opportunities”).

         In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit addressed a case similar to Field, in which the government had dismissed all charges against the movant. See United States v. Wahi, 850 F.3d 296 (7th Cir. 2017). In Wahi, the Seventh Circuit reversed its earlier decision in United States v. Flowers, 389 F.3d 737 (7th Cir. 2004), and concluded that, in light of Kokkonen, a “district court lacks ancillary jurisdiction to hear requests for equitable expungement.”[1] 850 F.3d at 303. Notably, the Seventh Circuit made the following observation:

With this holding we join five of our sister circuits, each of which has read Kokkonen to preclude the assertion of ancillary jurisdiction over a request to expunge judicial records on purely equitable grounds. No circuit has rejected this understanding of Kokkonen. ...

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