N.H. House committee retains criminal annulment bill due to mounting concerns

Monitor staff
Published: 5/28/2019 5:11:33 PM

Lawmakers hit the brakes Tuesday on a bill that would have allowed for some criminal defendants to petition the court to have their convictions wiped clean before fully paying restitution to their victims.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee voted unanimously to retain Senate Bill 311 for another year and continue working on it after prosecutors, victims advocates and court officials raised significant concerns in recent weeks about the proposal. While several amendments to the bill were put forward, lawmakers agreed Tuesday that they did not have the magic solution and still needed time to iron out the details.

The committee’s decision stops the bill from moving to the House floor until next year.

“There were so many people really concerned with some aspects of the bill,” Democratic Rep. Linda Harriott-Gathright said, while noting that committee members hope to work with all interested parties in the months ahead to reach a compromise.

As introduced, the bill aims to streamline the annulment process by reducing the waiting period, expanding eligibility and eliminating fees. However, opponents say the proposed reform would leave victims who are owed unpaid restitution little recourse once criminal convictions are erased from the public record system.

In a rare move, court administrators and judges have cautioned against passage of the bill in its present form, saying the judicial branch does not have the ability to monitor and compel restitution payments once a conviction is expunged from a defendant’s record and cleared from the state’s database.

The Senate previously voted 16-8 that the bill ought to pass as amended before sending it to the House in mid-March. The bill has since remained with the House committee, which has held a handful of work sessions in the past two months. Despite their efforts, lawmakers were still mulling several versions of the bill in recent days, including a new proposal shared just hours before Tuesday’s vote.

The latest amendment came from Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law who has assisted the bill’s sponsors in drafting the legislation. It differs from earlier proposals in that it requires a defendant who owes $2,000 or more in restitution to have paid at least 40% of the total to be eligible for an annulment. Earlier proposals did not establish that benchmark.

While the provision does not relieve the defendant from his or her obligation to pay the full amount of restitution, members of the criminal justice and victim advocacy communities say they’re concerned about accountability and enforcement. They’re still calling all defendants to pay restitution in full before a judge can consider a request for an annulment.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said in a statement Tuesday that it’s grateful to the House committee for voting to retain a “deeply flawed bill” and for not moving forward with the amendment authored by Scherr.

“If this bill were to have passed, New Hampshire would earn its place as the only state in the nation where offenders are allowed to completely erase their crime before repaying their victim,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s director of public affairs. “Victims will never be able to erase what happened to them, and victims should never be forced to shoulder the cost of an offender’s crimes.”

If approved as written, the bill would also conflict with existing habitual offender laws which mandate a 10-year look-back period. Lawmakers have considered changing the waiting period to three or seven years as part of their discussions on annulment reform.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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