The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a new tax this week that will require people to pay to have their name cleared upon the completion of diversion. HB 2774 (here), sponsored by Rep. Eric Watson, Cleveland, introduces the new tax. The new part is a $100.00 tax that must be paid to the court when requesting diversion. Also added is an increase in taxes that will escalate the amount required to clear one's name to $350.00. Thus, the total cost to have a record expunged after diversion will be $550.00 when the local fee for Hamilton County is added. The house bill has been sent to the TN Senate for passage.
If signed by Gov. Haslam, the law will go into effect July 1st. This is a bad idea.
Who will this bill affect, and what is diversion? Let's start with diversion; there are two types: judicial diversion and pretrial diversion.
Judicial diversion is a way many minor cases are settled for first time offenders. Let's say you have a daughter who is home from college and gets arrested for using her sister's ID to get into a club or who actually drinks in the club. The offending person is potentially guilty of underage drinking and using a false ID, both crimes. If the person accepts responsibility and has no criminal record, the court may defer court proceedings without entering a judgment of guilty--with the consent of the prosecutor. Under this example, the student will now pay $100 to be considered for diversion and $350 more (plus $100 local fee) to have their record expunged after completing diversion. Previously, the person paid $150.
Pretrial diversion is for those with the least culpability who find themselves ensnared in the legal system. Let's say a person writes a check for a service and then disputes the service, placing a stop-payment order on the check. The merchant then swears out a criminal warrant for theft of services. Under this scenario each person believes the other is the culprit. The check writer may find herself in court, charged with a crime. If the district attorney believes the explanation, he may offer the person pretrial diversion with an understanding that the case will be dismissed and expunged. Most people, completely innocent people, will accept this disposition rather than endure additional trips to the courthouse to prove their innocence. Under the new law, this person will also be forced to pay $550 to have her good name cleared for actions that she believed were completely honest and ethical.
There is good reason to have records expunged. Background checks are routine for employers, higher education and many other reasons. A minor charge--even when explained--often will result in a job or school denial when found on a background check. Diversion is granted one time and only for good cause. The result is that many ordinary people may have their records expunged and reputation restored upon successful completion of diversion. A modest fee for the service has always been the rule. This week's action by Rep. Watson and the house will place a new heavy financial burden on many. This new tax will effect every citizen who seeks diversion. Without paying the new application tax, there will be no consideration of an application for diversion. Without payment of the increased tax, no record will be expunged. Many across the state who cannot afford these new and increased taxes will be harmed.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)