Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle has rejected a request to expunge a portion of an Altoona woman's criminal record stemming from her straw purchase of two handguns for a family friend, contending that the government's interest in maintaining an open record outweighed the woman's quest for a better job.
Doyle's opinion filed Monday in the office of the Blair County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts came a week after a similar case in which an Altoona man was granted his request to have a portion of his criminal history expunged.
Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva authored the opinion in the man's case.
The two very similar cases are illustrative of a growing trend in the court in which local residents are requesting that their criminal records - which often involved felony charges - be removed from public view.
Criminal arrest records available electronically to the public can be easily reviewed by prospective employers.
Most criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, reducing sometimes serious felony charges to misdemeanor offenses.
In the two cases resolved in the past week, the defendants complained that, while the felony offenses against them were dismissed, the charges still remained on the public record, making it difficult to obtain better jobs.
The two Blair County judges concluded that requests for expungement must be resolved through a "balancing test" in which the judge weighs the interest of the government to maintain public records against the harm the maintenance of such public records can do to the defendant.
Doyle referred to the defendant in her case as "N.W.," the woman's initials.
In a footnote to her opinion Doyle explained, "Since [the Court's] opinion is public record and may be reported, the Court is using initials so that [the defendant] is not prejudiced merely by filing the petition for expungement."
The woman represented herself during a hearing that occurred Sept. 12, before Doyle.
Blair County Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery said that in the woman's case, the government wanted the record to remain public "so should something happen again, people know exactly what they are dealing with as far as her record."
According to the charges, the woman on separate occasions purchased two handguns, a .38-caliber pistol and a 9 mm pistol, for a friend of the man she was living with.
She said she was intimidated by the man who wanted the guns, but also she explained she bought the guns because she wanted to be part of the group.
Her boyfriend was a well-known drug dealer, and his friend was unable to buy guns because of his criminal record.
Initially she was charged with felony offenses for the illegal transfer of firearms.
When it came time to dispose of the case, she pled to one count of possession of a firearm with an altered manufacturer's number, a misdemeanor.
She wanted the judge to expunge the felonies from her public record.
Doyle refused, pointing out the initial case against her was strong.
She admitted to the straw purchases in a written statement to state police.
While she is 34 years old, and it's been nine years since her arrest, Doyle said a 25-year-old [her age when arrested] "is held by society to have better moral character and judgment than the defendant exhibited and exercised in doing what she did."
Doyle concluded, "If the defendant remains law abiding and truthful, eventually her good behavior will outweigh her previous criminal conduct, which was among the most dangerous and serious of crimes. But that time is not now."
In the case of the 30-year-old male, "J.N.," who nine years ago was charged with criminal attempt at rape, and other serious sexual offenses, eventually served 6-23 1/2 months in prison and was placed on probation for two years.
The felonies were dismissed, and he pled to indecent assault and simple assault, misdemeanors.
He, too, wanted the felonies, which were dismissed as part of the plea agreement, removed from his public record.
Kopriva pointed out that the man did not plead guilty but entered no-contest pleas to the two lesser charges and that the female
victim told contradictory stories. It was also reported she was reluctant to testify but would do so if called upon.
Judge Kopriva concluded that in the man's case the felony charges, if public, would harm the man's ability to find work locally, although he presently has a job out of the area.
There has been nine years since his arrest on the sexually related offenses, Kopriva stated.
Assistant District Attorney Emily Freed represented the government, while defense attorney Kristen Anastasi argued in the man's point of view.