Understanding Pleas and Expungement in the Rhode Island Court System

What is the difference between a Guilty and a Nolo Contendere plea? What are the consequences of different pleas in Rhode Island? What types of cases can be expunged? This article by RI Attorney Kevin Hagan discusses the different types of pleas and how each type of disposition can affect one’s eligibility for expungement.

Under Rhode Island law, a Defendant may enter one of three pleas on a criminal charge- guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere. Nolo contendere is a legal term that comes from the Latin for “I do not wish to contend.” Usually, a plea of nolo contendere has the same legal effect as a guilty plea. However, a guilty plea results in a criminal conviction in all circumstances. Yet, there are varieties of circumstances under which a nolo contendere plea will not result in a criminal conviction on the Defendant’s record.

In Rhode Island, a misdemeanor charge becomes a criminal conviction only if the Defendant is found guilty at trial, entered a plea of guilty, or the court has imposed a
sentence of incarceration, suspended sentence, or a fine. Notably, probation resulting from a plea of nolo contendere, if successfully completed, does not create a criminal conviction on the Defendant’s record. However, a fine resulting from the same plea does.

If the Defendant is not acquitted at some point during the litigation stage, a good option for most Defendants is what is called a “filing.” A filing is governed by Rhode Island General Laws Section 12-10-12. The court or prosecutor may “file” a case for one year (three years for domestic violence cases) after a plea of not guilty or nolo contendere. If the Defendant stays out of trouble for one year (or three years) and complies with any conditions that may be attached to the filing, the case is dismissed.

Expungement and Sealing

In Rhode Island, expungement is a legal process that erases your criminal record from public record. Expungement is only available for first-time offenders who were not convicted of a violent crime, and the required waiting time has passed by. Sealing is a different legal process that limits access to your records after the dismissal of a charge. Both the expungement and sealing process are only available if you do not have a prior felony conviction.

Even if you were acquitted or your case was dismissed, you should file a motion to have your records sealed or expunged. If your case resulted in a dismissal or if you were found not guilty, it does not mean the record has been sealed automatically.

You must wait a required period of time before expungement or sealing.

  • Misdemeanors have a five-year waiting period from the date your case was settled, sentence was completed and/or probationary period is complete.
  • Felonies have a ten-year waiting period from the date your case was settled, sentence was completed and/or probationary period is complete.
  • Domestic violence crimes carry a waiting period of three years.
  • Deferred sentences where you pleaded guilty or nolo contendere has a waiting period of five years.
To begin the expungement process, one must:

  1. Get a copy of your Criminal Record from the AG’s office in Providence, Rhode Island.
  2. File a motion for expungement or sealing with the court where the charges were brought.
  3. Receive a court date from the clerk.
  4. Notify the police department that arrested you and the AG’s office of the date of the hearing.
  5. You or your lawyer must appear at court on the hearing date.
  6. Bring proof that you are eligible for expungement (usually a copy of your criminal record).

If granted, mail a copy of the order to the AG and the police department who arrested you so that they can seal or expunge the charge(s).

For many criminal defendants, the main priority is avoiding a conviction and ensuring that sooner rather than later, their criminal record can be destroyed or sealed. This prevents the public from viewing the records, and in some cases, also prevents governmental agencies from becoming aware of the records. In a day and age where employment opportunities are competitive, the last thing that a prospective employee needs is a criminal record!

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