The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded with the following in relevant part: Courts and legal scholars recognize that a pardon removes the legal disabilities that stem from the fact of a conviction but does not erase what happened when an offense was committed or restore a person’s good character. Thus, although a pardon renders a person eligible for expungement, it does not alter history. A pardoned individual may still fail to qualify under the statute for reasons other than the fact of conviction — reasons that live on after a pardon has been granted.
For example, the State may attempt to show that “the need for the availability of the records outweighs the desirability of having a person freed from” limitations the expungement statute provides. See N.J.S.A. 2C:52-14(b); see also N.J.S.A. 2C:52-14 (listing other grounds for denial of relief).
Section 14(b) calls for a qualitative assessment of the public and private interests at stake, which does not turn on the fact of a conviction. Otherwise, because most petitioners have a prior conviction they are seeking to expunge, section 14(b) could override much of the expungement scheme. Instead, the section places the burden on the objector to assert grounds that might weigh against expungement. Those grounds could include, among other things, the circumstances of a particular offense, details about what the applicant did, and the harm the person caused. See Kollman (considering the nature of an offense in the context of N.J.S.A. 2C:52-2(a)(2) and (c)(3) (2012)). Such case-specific facts are not wiped clean by a pardon.
In this case, nothing in the record demonstrates the need for the continued availability of T.O.’s records. See N.J.S.A. 2C:52-14(b). The State presented no argument against expungement other than the statutory bar for multiple convictions. In fact, at the hearing in the trial court, the State conceded that T.O. has “been living a productive, law-abiding life since the 90s” and acknowledged that “if there is a person deserving of an expungement, it is T.O.” The trial judge, as well, stated that T.O. “would have qualified” for expungement, aside from the statutory bar. Accordingly, T.O. is entitled to expungement of criminal records related to his 1994 and 1996 convictions.
For the reasons set forth above, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and grant T.O.’s petition for expungement. We remand the matter to the trial court to enter an appropriate form of order.
While it is a criminal offense in New Jersey to knowingly disclose the existence of an expunged conviction, finding proof of expunged offenses is not difficult in the digital age. That is particularly true in a politically-charged case like this. While the Court seeks to protect T.O.’s identity by using his/her initials, the facts listed in the Court’s opinion make his/her identity and the nature of his/her prior convictions readily available on the internet.