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Conviction: Civil Disabilities

Restoration Of Rights

Once a person has lost civil rights as a result of a conviction, he may never be able to regain them. Disfranchisement in many states is lifelong; there is no mechanism for restoring the right to vote. A prospective employer, public or private, may use a decades-old conviction for a minor offense as grounds for denying employment to an applicant. The stigma of conviction lasts long after a sentence has been served, and may constitute a permanent barrier to reintegration into the community. Some states limit the duration of at least some civil disabilities, usually providing for automatic restoration of certain rights at the end of imprisonment, probation, or parole. Many states take a middle ground, providing some discretionary mechanism, either judicial or administrative, for the restoration of at least some civil rights.

A substantial and growing number of states have enacted legislation providing for the "expungement" of a criminal conviction, under specific circumstances and for specific crimes. The statutes are usually vague about the scope of expungement and even less clear about its effect on those civil rights that would otherwise be lost or suspended. For example, it is uncertain whether a person whose conviction has been "expunged" may validly deny, on employment application forms or in other settings, that she has been convicted of a crime.

Similar difficulties arise with regard to specific rights that are generally lost upon conviction. In California, for example, the expungement statute provides that the defendant convicted of a misdemeanor "shall be released from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense or crime" (Cal. Penal Code § I 203.4a (1981 Supp.)). The California courts have interpreted this language in varying ways. Thus, expungement restores the voting franchise and releases the offender from the obligation to register with local police, but does not automatically restore either his right to possess a firearm or his right to regain professional licenses. Nor does expungement prohibit the civil service from relying on evidence of a conviction in dismissing a public employee. Similar confusion has attended efforts to provide for the restoration of other civil rights that are lost as a result of conviction.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawConviction: Civil Disabilities - Historical Background, The Predicates For Imposing Civil Disabilities, Specific Rights Lost, Private Rights, Punishment And Procedure