Commonwealth V Waughtel - Can Plea Bargain Charges Be Expunged in Pennsylvania?

Commonwealth v. Waughtel
Superior Court of Pennsylvania
July 16, 2010

Holding: Charges dismissed pursuant to a plea bargain are not eligible for expungement.

Why This Case is Important: A person that receives an acquittal from his charge is entitled to expungement. While a person who is convicted of his charges will not be entitled to expungement except in extremely limited circumstances. As such, whether a person can successfully petition for expungement depends on where he falls on the spectrum of dispositions between an acquittal and a conviction.

A defendant can have charges against him terminated without a conviction for various reasons. When a case is terminated without conviction for reasons such as a nolle prosequi or an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program, the court will look to factors and determine whether justice requires expungement. However, if a charge is dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement, the court may deny expungement without even considering evidence of whether justice requires expungement.

These rules arise from two cases: Commonwealth v. Wexler and Commonwealth v. Lutz. The Wexler case establishes the factor driven test the court implements in determining whether justice requires expungement. The Court in Wexler determined that courts must implement such a test in situations where a case is terminated because of a nolle prosequi or ARD program. On the other hand, the Lutz case established that a charge dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement is not eligible for expungement.

The differences in Wexler and Lutz are apparent in the court’s understanding of a nolle prosequi or ARD termination, and a dismissal pursuant to a plea agreement. A nolle prosequi is an entry on the record that the prosecutor no longer wishes to continue an action against a defendant. Generally, a nolle prosequi arises when there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the defendant. Similarly, ARD is a program in Pennsylvania that allows a defendant to work towards rehabilitation in lieu of a conviction. If the defendant completes the program, he earns a dismissal of the charges. For these reasons, the court aligns such cases closer to an acquittal, and therefore allows the charges to be expunged if justice so requires.

A dismissal pursuant to a plea agreement, on the other hand, is closer to a conviction in the court’s mind. A dismissal of charges pursuant to a plea agreement does not occur because there is a lack of evidence or because the defendant is working towards rehabilitation. The charges are only dismissed because of an agreement between the Commonwealth and the defendant for a guilty plea of a lesser charge. As such, the courts view the dismissal of charges to be a bargain between the defendant and the commonwealth, and that an expungement of these charges, unless in the agreement itself, would impermissibly allow a defendant to receive more than he had bargained for. As a result, courts generally do not allow charges dismissed via a plea agreement the benefit of expungement.

Facts of This Case: In 2000, the defendant in this case was charged with three counts of simple assault, three counts of aggravated assault, and one count of harassment. In 2001, the case was set for trial. However, on the day of the trial, the defendant entered into a plea agreement with the commonwealth. Pursuant to the plea agreement, the defendant would plea nolo contendere (which is similar to a guilty plea) to harassment, and the other charges would be dismissed.

In 2009, the defendant filed a petition to expunge the charges on his record. The court denied the defendant’s request, and the defendant appealed.

The superior court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decision of the trial court. The superior court examined two cases: Wexler and Lutz. The court determined that Wexler allowed for the expungement of charges that were terminated without conviction as a result of nolle prosequi or ARD. The superior court also determined that the ruling in Lutz was that charges dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement were not entitled to expungement. The superior court held that Lutz was the controlling law in the defendant’s case

The superior court stated that the defendant’s charges were dismissed pursuant to a plea agreement. It adopted the reasoning in Lutz, and held that to allow the defendant to expunge such charges would impermissibly allow him to gain a greater benefit from his plea deal. The superior court therefore affirmed the trial court’s order and concluded that the defendant’s expungement petition should be denied.

Key Language: A nolle prosse is essentially a decision by the Commonwealth that there is insufficient evidence to support the charges at the present time, with the caveat that the Commonwealth may reinstate charges later. In contrast, the Commonwealth’s decision to drop charges pursuant to plea agreement carries no such implicit admission that proof is lacking. In the absence of an agreement as to expungement, Appellant stands to receive more than he bargained for in the plea agreement if the dismissed charges are later expunged. Thus, the defendant is not entitled to expungement.

Expert Advise: Expungement in Pennsylvania is allowed if a defendant is acquitted or if the case is terminated due to a nolle prosse or ARD program. It is important to note that a case terminated as a result of a nolle prosse or ARD program will be expunged only if the court determines that justice requires it. This case establishes that defendants who are convicted or who have their charges dismissed via a plea agreement have a very limited opportunity to have their charges expunged.” -Attorney Mathew Higbee.

To read about more cases that help to define record clearing relief laws click here.

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