Back in the early 2000s, Carlos Battle was addicted to cocaine and heroin.
So when he was offered the chance after an arrest to take part in drug court in Baltimore, Battle said, he accepted the opportunity. He said he was given a suspended sentence and three years’ probation on a charge of possession with intent to distribute.
“I jumped on it,” Battle recalled in a recent interview, “trying to get back on the street.”
But Battle said he hadn’t addressed his addiction at that time and was still getting high. He was later found to have violated the conditions of his probation and sent to prison.
Now, Battle, 59, of West Baltimore, is a reverend at New Shiloh Baptist Church and a member of We Our Us, a nonprofit organization that guides boys and men to resources and encourages them to take on prominent roles in the community. He said he’s been involved for at least a decade in prison ministry in Maryland. But because of a recent state appeals court decision, he may never be able to receive an expungement — which could prevent him from starting a new position as a peer recovery specialist.
The Appellate Court of Maryland ruled in 2022 that people whose probation was unsatisfactorily closed are not entitled to expungement, or the removal of a case from court and law enforcement records. To lawyers who work with individuals seeking to clear their records, the decision seems to run counter to the spirit of the statute, which is to give those who’ve changed their lives a chance to move forward.
“When is someone’s punishment over?” said Stacy Bensky — a staff attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, a private, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services statewide to low-income people — who represents Battle. “When have they finally served their sentence, so they can go into society and not have this scarlet letter and be judged by their past?”
‘You feel like everything that you’ve did doesn’t matter’
The case that went to the intermediate appeals court dates to 2008, when a man named Abhishek Isaac pleaded guilty to theft of property with a value under $500 in Montgomery County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to one year of incarceration, with all time suspended, plus one year of supervised probation.
Several months after being sentenced, Isaac was charged with a violation of probation. Court records show he was arrested on two different occasions on charges of possession of cannabis — which is now legal under certain amounts in Maryland.
In 2010, Isaac admitted to the violation and was sentenced to four days in jail. A judge closed his probation, deeming it unsatisfactory.
When Isaac filed a petition for expungement in 2020, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office opposed his request.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge David A. Boynton later denied the petition, ruling that Isaac had to “satisfy” his sentence — which included probation — to be eligible for expungement. That meant that he needed to have completed his supervision without violating it.
The law states that someone must wait a certain period to request expungement after he or she “satisfies the sentence or sentences imposed for all convictions for which expungement is requested, including parole, probation, or mandatory supervision.”
In a 12-page opinion, Appellate Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote for the three-judge panel that Isaac satisfied his punishment for the violation of probation — but not his original sentence of probation.
“He did not fulfill or comply with the conditions of probation,” Graeff said. “Rather, within months, appellant violated the terms of his probation, which resulted in the court imposing the four-day sentence and closing his probation unsatisfactorily.”
So the mid-level appeals court upheld the decision to deny expungement. The decision was reported, which means that it holds precedent statewide.
In an interview, Isaac said he was born in Hyderabad, India, and immigrated to the United States at age 9. He said he spent time with friends who made bad decisions when he was younger.
He said he later left home to pursue production and writing in New York. When he was 27, Isaac said, he founded Media Mangy, a marketing and branding multimedia company. He said he’s a single father of three boys and involved in their lives.
Isaac said he’s trying to be the best father he can be and take care of his parents.
Though Isaac said his conviction did not affect any job opportunities, he felt hurt that the courts denied expungement. He said he was shocked, considering that he’s grown so much.
“You feel like everything that you’ve did doesn’t matter,” said Isaac, 34, who lives in Laurel and Los Angeles. “That’s not fair.”
‘It defeats the purpose of the expungement statute’
Meaghan McDermott, chief attorney of community lawyering for Maryland Legal Aid, said the ruling has affected a lot of its clients.
Judges, she said, have denied petitions for expungement, citing the opinion. State’s attorneys have also objected on the grounds that people unsatisfactorily completed their probation.
McDermott noted that the law for expungement has changed so much during the last several years. She said she believes there’s been a recognition that a lot of people were overcharged in the war on drugs and that it’s better for individuals to be part of their communities and the economic system.
Criminal records can make it difficult for people to obtain employment and secure housing.
“This decision has a huge impact on being able to clear their records and move into their communities in an impactful way,” McDermott said. “And if people can’t work legally, they’re going to find another way to make money.”
“It’s just a cycle,” she added. “If you can’t work, then you have to live.”
It’s common for people who are on supervision to violate the terms of their probation, said Chris Sweeney, workforce development manager at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, a nonprofit organization that helps provide legal assistance to low-income individuals and families.
But Sweeney said that does not mean that they’ve committed a new crime. A violation could consist of something as minor as moving without providing a new address, he said.
People involved in the criminal justice system, he said, are often struggling with multiple types of systemic challenges.
The ruling, he said, does not categorically mean that people who were found in violation of probation are barred from receiving an expungement. Judges must explicitly state that the supervision was ended unsatisfactorily, Sweeney said.
Lawyers said a court file might include a handwritten note that probation was unsatisfactorily closed or “unsat.”
But Sweeney noted that people who are actually sentenced to straight jail or prison time might be eligible for expungement, in some cases. Meanwhile, he said, those who received probation for the same charges but had their case unsatisfactorily closed would not be entitled to relief.
As a senior staff attorney at the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Kari Lee is representing a client who’s looking to have a conviction from the early 2000s expunged.
Lee said she wants to see what happened in the case before filing the petition for expungement. She said it’s difficult to obtain records in older cases and, in some instances, they might have been destroyed.
“We can’t just assume, because there was a violation of probation, that it was unsatisfactory,” said Lee, who noted that judges can find people in violation of probation and impose a sanction but allow them to continue on supervision. “It’s not always that clear.”
Mary Denise Davis, chief attorney of the Pretrial Unit for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, said that while the list has slowly expanded over time, the number of convictions that can be expunged is very small.
It takes time for people to change their lives, she said, and they already have to wait before filing for expungement. Under the ruling, Davis noted, those who violated probation three months into their sentence — but then stayed out of trouble for 15 years — might not be able to clear their records.
Expungement, she said, is legal redemption.
“The case that came out to me is just bad case law. It defeats the purpose of the expungement statute,” Davis said. “And I think it’s something that the legislature really needs to look at it.”
How are state’s attorneys responding to the decision in Maryland?
In Maryland, state’s attorneys are navigating the ruling in different ways.
In an email, Caylin Ryden, chief of administration for the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office, said it will file an objection to a petition for expungement if people have not satisfactorily completed their probation.
Lauren DeMarco, a spokesperson for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said it evaluates every petition for expungement on a case-by-case basis.
“Historically, in that situation, we object,” DeMarco said. “That’s what we were doing before this decision ever came out.”
Meanwhile, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said his office does not “regularly dig to see if probation was successfully completed.”
When his office reviews petitions for expungement, Shellenberger said, it will look up criminal records. Sometimes, he said, they will show that people unsatisfactorily completed their probation. So the state will rely on that information to object to expungement in the case, he said.
But Shellenberger said his office sees thousands of requests for expungement every year for misdemeanors. He said it does not have the resources — there is one employee and one assistant state’s attorney whose job in part includes looking at these petitions — to investigate that aspect.
In a statement, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy said her office is working to establish a policy to address the issue and outline how it will “handle these particular scenarios within our processes for expungement.”
“Currently, where a petitioner has filed for an expungement, however, unsatisfactorily completed probation — our office has had no objection to the filing,” Braveboy said. “We believe in the expungement process and its importance to the justice system.”
‘You don’t have to stay in and locked into your past’
The request has implications beyond his conviction for possession with intent to distribute.
If a judge denies his petition, Battle will not be able to clear several past convictions for drug possession, either. That’s because the law states that if people are convicted of a new crime during the waiting period to file for expungement in an old case, “the original conviction or convictions are not eligible for expungement unless the new conviction becomes eligible for expungement.”
Because Battle unsatisfactorily completed his probation for possession with intent to distribute, the holding of the appeals court ruling means that case would never become eligible for expungement.
When he learned about the appellate decision, Battle said, he felt like there was no help for people who’ve gotten their lives together and rehabilitated themselves. He described himself as a community person.
Battle said he and the Rev. George Carter are planning to open a recovery house for those reentering into society.
“We have to really try and allow them to see there is a real definition of rehabilitation,” Battle said, “and you don’t have to stay in and locked into your past.”