Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 00-CF-1385. Honorable Grant S. Wegner, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer
Defendant, John Carroccia, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9--1(a) (West 2000)). After a jury trial, he was acquitted. Defendant petitioned under section 5(a) of the Criminal Identification Act (Act) (20 ILCS 2630/5(a) (West 2002)) to expunge the records of his arrest. The trial court denied the petition with prejudice. Defendant appeals, arguing that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in denying the petition; and (2) even if the trial court properly denied the petition, it erred in doing so with prejudice. The State argues that the trial court acted properly, but agrees with defendant that the judgment should have been entered without prejudice. We affirm the denial of the petition to expunge, and we conclude that the trial court did not err in denying the petition with prejudice. However, we find that the doctrine of res judicata does not bar defendant from filing a new petition for expungement alleging additional facts not extant on the date the trial court denied defendant's initial petition to expunge.
On June 2, 2000, defendant was arrested by the Kane County sheriff's department and charged with the first-degree murder of Hampshire police officer Gregory Sears. On March 27, 2002, a jury found defendant not guilty. On October 4, 2002, defendant filed his petition to expunge. The petition alleged that because defendant had never been convicted of any criminal offense or municipal ordinance violation, had never been arrested for any offense other than the murder of Sears, and had no pending criminal charges against him, the trial court had the power to expunge his arrest records.
The State responded that the court should preserve defendant's arrest records. The State reasoned that because defendant was 52 years old and had "no significant record of employment," he had little need to have the records destroyed. Moreover, under People v. Wells, 294 Ill. App. 3d 405 (1998), several factors supported preserving the records. These included the strength of the evidence against defendant; the relatively short time since his arrest; and defendant's ongoing federal civil rights suit (see 42 U.S.C. §1983 (2000)) against the Kane County sheriff's department, the Village of Hampshire, and others.
The trial court did not hear evidence. After arguments, the court denied defendant's petition. Relying on Wells, the court conceded that defendant's age and lack of criminal history favored expungement. However, having presided over defendant's trial, the court recalled that "there was a lot of circumstantial evidence" and it believed that the State "had every right to proceed [with the case against defendant] on the basis of the *** evidence." In addition, the court opined that because defendant worked for a family business, expungement was not necessary for "employment purposes." The court also noted that, considering the seriousness of the charge, little time had passed since defendant's arrest. Furthermore, the court found no specific evidence that defendant suffered any adverse consequences. Finally, the court noted that defendant's federal complaint asked to have his arrest records expunged. While the trial judge doubted that the federal court could grant such relief, he thought it wise to retain the records while the federal suit was in progress.
Defendant's attorney asked if the judgment would be without prejudice so that defendant could again seek expungement of his arrest records after the federal case was over. The trial judge responded that he would deny the petition with prejudice but that defendant could later "file an appropriate motion" against the judgment so that relief would be available if circumstances changed. Defendant's attorney responded that he would have to file the motion within 30 days or lose the right to appeal. The trial judge said that defendant could file the motion within 30 days and "let it sit for whatever number of years." Thus, the court denied the petition with prejudice.
Defendant timely moved to reconsider. He argued that Wells's multifactor balancing test applies only if, as in Wells, the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). Defendant observed that Wells adopted the holding of Commonwealth v. W.P., 417 Pa. Super. 192, 612 A.2d 438 (1992), also an NGRI case, "when addressing petitions for expungement by defendants found NGRI." Wells, 294 Ill. App. 3d at 409. Defendant added that an NGRI verdict is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the person has committed a bad act and thus may pose a danger to the public, while an outright acquittal is proof of nothing. See W.P., 417 Pa. Super. at 201-02, 612 A.2d at 442-43. Thus, defendant maintained, he was presumptively entitled to the expungement of his arrest records.
Defendant also asserted that in any event, the trial court should not have denied the petition with prejudice. Defendant reasoned that because Chesler v. People, 309 Ill. App. 3d 145 (1999), which applied Wells to an acquittal, held that post-arrest behavior is a relevant consideration, the court should not have prevented him from later showing that his good conduct tipped the balance in favor of expungement.
At the hearing on defendant's motion, the State again asserted that defendant's arrest records should not be expunged as long as he still sought relief in federal court against the arresting authorities. The State also argued that Wells and Chesler supported denying relief even though defendant had been acquitted outright. Defendant replied that the defendants in the federal suit could obtain a protective order to preserve needed evidence but that he ought not be stigmatized or disadvantaged by the maintenance of his arrest records. The trial judge concluded that Wells and Chesler applied and that the pertinent factors favored preserving the arrest records. After the trial court denied his motion to reconsider, defendant timely appealed.
On appeal, defendant argues first that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to expunge his arrest records. Defendant reasons that because the State never rebutted the presumption of innocence, he should not suffer the consequences of an arrest record. Relying in part on Pennsylvania case law, including W.P., defendant urges us to limit Wells to defendants who have been found NGRI. Defendant asserts that one who was acquitted outright should be granted the expungement of his arrest records unless the State proves a compelling need to preserve them. Defendant maintains that here the State proved no such need.
We start with section 5(a) of the Act, which, as pertinent here, reads:
"Whenever an adult or minor prosecuted as an adult, not having previously been convicted of any criminal offense or municipal ordinance violation, charged with a violation of a municipal ordinance or a felony or misdemeanor, is acquitted or released without being convicted[,] *** the Chief Judge of the circuit wherein the charge was brought, any judge of that circuit designated by the Chief Judge, or *** the presiding trial judge at the defendant's trial may upon verified petition of the defendant order the record of the arrest expunged from the official records of the arresting authority and the Department [of State Police] and order that the records of the clerk of the circuit court be sealed until further order of court upon good cause shown and the name of the defendant obliterated on the official index required to be kept by the circuit court clerk under Section 16 of the Clerk of Courts Act." (Emphasis added.) 20 ILCS 2630/5(a) (West 2000).
Defendant's right to relief depends on the meaning of this language. The construction of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Branson v. Department of Revenue, 168 Ill. 2d 247, 254 (1995). We seek to ascertain the legislature's intent. In re Detention of Lieberman, 201 Ill. 2d 300, 307 (2002). Generally, the words the legislature used are the best guide to its intent, and unambiguous language must be given its natural import. ...