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Being Found in Contempt of Court Does Not Make You Ineligible to Set aside Your Record

State v. Coughlin
Court of Appeals of Oregon
October 9, 2013

Holding: A person who is found in contempt of court is not statutorily ineligible to set aside a conviction or arrest pursuant to Oregon Revised Statutes section 137.225.

Why This Case is Important: Oregon Revised Statutes § 137.255 establishes the procedures and requirements for a person to set aside their record of conviction or arrest. A person who is otherwise eligible to set aside a conviction or arrest record will be precluded from doing so if there has been a conviction ten years preceding the set aside motion. This case establishes that a person who is found in contempt of court is still statutorily eligible for a set aside, even if such a finding was within the ten years preceding the motion to set aside a conviction.

The court’s reasoning in this case relies entirely on the fact that a finding of contempt is neither a conviction nor an offense. Section 137.255(6) precludes persons from setting aside a conviction if, within ten years immediately preceding the filing of the motion, the person was convicted of an offense.

The court here focused on the words “convicted” and “offense.” First, the court found that being found in contempt does not amount to a conviction. This arose from statutory and case law interpretation, in which established that contempt was not a crime and was not an adjudication of guilt. Because contempt was not a conviction, section 137.255(6) did not apply.

Furthermore, the court also found that contempt was not an offense. An offense is defined as conduct that amounts to a crime or a violation. Because the court already established that contempt was not a crime, the analysis fell on whether being found in contempt was a violation. The court again examined case law and established that the law did not define contempt as a violation. As such, because being found in contempt is not a crime or violation, it was not an offense, and therefore does not statutorily bar a person from setting aside a conviction or arrest record.

It is important to note that the court of appeals did not grant the petitioner’s set aside motion. The court of appeals remanded the case back to the lower court in order for them to decide whether the petitioner acted in conformity to public law. This means that although the court of appeals found that the petitioner was not barred from being found in contempt, the decision as to whether the behavior of the applicant, specifically whether she violated public law, had yet to be determined. If the contempt finding is held to have violated public law, the trial court would then have the discretion to deny the petitioner’s set aside request.

Facts of This Case: In 1990, the petitioner in this case pleaded guilty to one count of forgery. The petitioner successfully completed her probation without incident. In 2005, the petitioner was found in contempt of court for violating a restraining order. In 2011, the petitioner moved to have her 1990 forgery conviction set aside, alleging she had no criminal conviction within the past ten years and that no criminal cases were pending against her. The state opposed the petitioner’s motion on the grounds that her 2005 contempt adjudication rendered her ineligible. The trial court agreed and denied the petitioner’s motion based on the determination that she had a conviction within ten years immediately preceding her motion.

The court of appeals of Oregon reversed the trial court’s decision. The court of appeals focused on the language of ORS § 137.255(6), specifically on the words “conviction” and “offense.” The court of appeals determined that an adjudication of contempt was not a conviction because, according to case law and statutory definition, one is neither found guilty of contempt, nor is contempt a crime. The court of appeals also determined that contempt was not an offense, since it could not be defined as a violation or a crime. Because ORS § 137.255(6) precluded only those who were convicted of an offense within ten years of the motion, the court of appeals concluded that the petitioner was still statutorily eligible to set aside her 1990 conviction.

The court of appeals thereby remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of whether the petitioner’s adjudication of contempt violated public law, which, if established, would allow the trial court to deny the petitioner’s request.

Key Language: The court of appeals concludes that a person does not become ineligible to have a conviction set aside under ORS 137.255 merely because the person was held in contempt during the ten years preceding his or her motion seeking that relief.

ORS 137.255(3) provides that, even when a person has not been convicted of a disqualifying offense, the trial court still must determine whether the circumstances and behavior of the applicant from the date of conviction to the date of the hearing on the motion warrant setting aside the conviction.

Expert Advise: “This case clearly defines what is a conviction or offense. It is important to know whether an adjudication by the court falls within these definitions when determining set aside eligibility. As established in this case, an adjudication of contempt is neither an offense nor a conviction, and therefore does not disqualify a petitioner from moving the court to set aside his or her arrest or conviction record.” Attorney Mathew Higbee.

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

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