His case occurred in 1996.
A court's expungement of a man's prior domestic violence conviction didn't restore his right to carry a firearm because it didn't wipe all records of his conviction clean, so it doesn't qualify as an expungement under federal law, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
According to court documents, James Bergman's court records were sealed as part of a 2007 expungement of his 1996 domestic assault conviction. At the time, the state court found that his conviction was ineligible for "statutory expungement" — meaning records held by all other government agencies would be sealed — so his conviction remained in national and state background check databases.
"In sum, the expungement that took place in 2007 ... did not remove, erase, or destroy the executive branch records of Bergman's prior domestic assault conviction," Justice Margaret Chutich wrote. "We therefore hold that expungement by inherent authority does not by itself satisfy the federal meaning of expungement, and Bergman's right to carry a firearm in Minnesota cannot be reinstated under these circumstances."
Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad said the case highlights a need for clarity on what constitutes expungement under state and federal law when it comes to determining who is eligible to own a firearm. He said clarification would help sheriffs, who approve gun permits, as well as people who may be applying for a permit with past domestic violence offenses.
Bergman sought to expunge his conviction in 2007 so that he could hunt. An Anoka County judge granted the expungement and ordered that the judicial and arrest records be sealed. Bergman applied for, and was granted, a permit to carry in 2008.
But when he tried to renew his application in 2017, Isanti County Sheriff Christopher Caulk denied his request because his prior conviction showed up in a background check. The Isanti County District Court denied Bergman's request to order that a permit be issued, saying that sealing his conviction didn't eliminate it, so it wasn't "removed or eliminated as defined under federal law."
A divided Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed, but the state Supreme Court reversed that decision and sided with the lower court.
The high court noted that in 2007, Bergman didn't have the option of seeking statutory expungement of a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, but that he does now. Bergman's attorney, Dan Guerrero, said that's an option his client will consider.
Guerrero said Bergman would be disappointed by the ruling, but it was "a hard road to convince the court that simple judicial expungement would constitute the erasure of all criminal records."
Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said the Supreme Court ruling sets the bar high at a time when much attention is being given to second chances and criminal justice reform. "It just seems relatively simple: If a court saw fit to expunge this from his record (and) make it look like it didn't exist, why is he still being punished?"
The Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota and Protect Minnesota Advocacy Fund, said: "The fact that the court agreed to expunge, or seal, his record doesn't change the fact that he was and still is a prohibited purchaser who should not have the right to possess or carry a firearm."
Isanti County Sheriff Christopher Caulk said authorities want to rely on as much data as possible, including executive records, when making decisions on permits.
"I'm very supportive of people's Second Amendment rights," he said. "I also understand there are background checks we are required to do by law as well, and I want to be as intentional as I can."
Caulk said individual rights to own a firearm are protected, but if someone is barred from having a gun, "I want to have as many tools as I can to say, 'Here's why I did what I did.'"