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Expunged Juvenile Convictions Do Not Bar Firearm Possession in Washington

In re Firearm Rights of Nelson
Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One
December 29, 2003

Holding: An individual who has their juvenile conviction expunged in Washington is not barred from possessing a firearm pursuant to RCW 9.41.040.

Why This Case is Important: RCW 9.41.040 restricts a person’s ability to own a firearm if they have been convicted of a serious offense. According to the statute, those seeking to restore their firearm rights must have either had a pardon, annulment or certificate of rehabilitation, or have met the statutory period. It is important to note that not all convictions lead to restoration of firearm rights via the statutory period route, as section 9.41.040(4) lists several crimes that are ineligible for firearm restoration.

This case establishes that a person who has expunged their conviction, such that it is treated as if the proceedings of a case never occurred, will not be barred from possessing a firearm under section 9.41.040; in particular, this case deals with the effects of expunging a juvenile record of conviction.

RCW 13.50.260 states that if a person has their juvenile record expunged, the proceedings of the case will be treated as if they never occurred. As such, it is as if the former juvenile defendant was never convicted of a crime. In order to be prevented from owning a firearm pursuant to section 9.41.040, it is necessary that a defendant be convicted of a serious crime.

When expungement occurs, a court can no longer conclude that a person was convicted of a crime. Furthermore, once a record is expunged, there no longer exist official records that prove an offense occurred. Because the conviction is erased, then the statutory bar on firearm possession no longer applies to an individual who has had their record expunged.

Facts of This Case: Between 12 and 15 years old, the defendant in this case was charged with committing various felonies. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to his offenses, which were classified as serious offenses. In 2000, the defendant received a superior court order sealing and expunging his juvenile record. The records were thereby ordered destroyed and sealed forever.

In 2002, the defendant petitioned to restore his firearm rights. The trial court denied his request, and the Washington Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision.

The court of appeals stated that in order to be restricted from firearm possession pursuant to RCW 9.41.040, the defendant must have been convicted of a serious crime. The court of appeals held that after expungement, the defendant’s juvenile records should be treated as if the case never occurred. The court of appeals determined that because the case never occurred as a result of the expungement statute, then the court could not legally conclude that the defendant was convicted for purposes of the firearm statute. The court of appeals held that the trial court was obligated to treat the juvenile proceedings as if they never occurred.

Because there were no longer any records to prove the defendant had a past conviction, the court concluded that RCW 9.41.040 did not make it unlawful for the defendant to carry a firearm. The court of appeals thereby reversed the trial court’s decision.

Key Language: After expungement of juvenile records in Washington, “the proceedings in the case shall be treated as if they never occurred.” If the proceedings never occurred, logically the end result – a conviction – never occurred either. The plain language of the expungement statute entitled Nelson to act and be treated as if he has not previously been convicted. If he has not previously been convicted, he may legally possess firearms.

Expert Advise: This case clearly establishes another avenue for restoration of firearm rights. Asides from obtaining a pardon or waiting through the statutory period, a person may have their firearm rights restored if their records of convictions are expunged such that they are erased and forever sealed, as is the case with a juvenile expungement in Washington.

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

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