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U.S. v. Doe

filed: November 24, 1992.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOHN DOE, APPELLANT



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA. (D.C. Criminal Action No. 79-00030-01).

Before: Stapleton, Scirica and Nygaard, Circuit Judges.

Author: Nygaard

Opinion OF THE COURT

NYGAARD, Circuit Judge

The District Court denied appellant John Doe's Motion for Expungement of the record of his conviction under the Federal Youth Corrections Act (FYCA), 18 U.S.C. § 5005 et. seq. (1976) (repealed 1984); reasoning that § 5021 of the FYCA did not authorize federal courts to expunge criminal records. Because we believe it within the court's power to expunge his records, we will reverse and remand.

I.

While a college undergraduate student, Doe pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States of $8,736.53 in student loan proceeds -- a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. Specifically, Doe gained access to his university's computer system, enrolled in classes and gave himself grades and credit for classes he never attended -- all while receiving federal financial assistance. He was sentenced to five years probation, conditioned on restitution within three years.Doe made full restitution within the three year period and the court ordered that he be "unconditionally discharged from probation" and that his conviction be "set aside."

He returned to college, graduated with honors in engineering, and was offered a position with the Carolina Power and Light Company. A company security check disclosed Doe's conviction, and that this conviction had been "set aside." Nonetheless, the company withdrew its offer of employment.Doe now works for the GPU Nuclear Corporation.

He was recommended by GPU for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission reactor operator's license. The application form for this license inquired whether he had ever been convicted of violating a federal, state, county, or municipal law. He answered in the affirmative and the negative, and attached an explanation expressing his belief that the conviction had been expunged.

The NRC's background investigation disclosed that the conviction was still on the government's records; that the conviction was "set-aside;" and that Doe's record is readily accessible to the public. Notwithstanding the criminal record, Doe was granted his operator's license.*fn1

Doe filed a Motion for Expungement.*fn2 In it he indicated that he pleaded guilty believing that his record would be expunged once he completed his probationary period.Doe further contended that, although he has advanced in his career, further advancement is inhibited by the conviction record. The district court denied Doe's motion because no express language in the statute authorizes an expungement.

Because this issue raises questions of statutory construction, our review is plenary. Wheeler v. Heckler 787 F.2d 101, 104 (3d. Cir., 1986).

II.

A.

We have stated that "it is axiomatic that statutory interpretation properly begins with the language of the statute itself, including all of its parts. There is no need to resort to legislative history unless the statutory language is ambiguous." Velis v. Kardanis 949 F.2d 78, 81 (3d Cir. 1991). See also Sacred Heart Medical Center v. Sullivan 958 F.2d 537 (3d Cir. 1992). We realize, however, that there are instances where language initially appears plain, but when applied to a particular situation may create an ambiguity. When that happens, the Supreme Court has instructed that "words are inexact tools at best and for that reason there is wisely no rule of law forbidding resort to explanatory legislative history no matter how clear the words may appear on superficial examination." Hanson v. Northern Trust Company 317 U.S. 476, 479, 63 S. Ct. 361, 363, 87 L. Ed. 407 (1943). See also Association of Westinghouse Employees v. Westinghouse Electric Company 348 U.S. 437, 444, 75 S. Ct. 489, 492, 99 L. Ed. 510 (1955) (legislative history should be examined to "see whether that history raises such doubts that the search for meaning should not be limited to the statute itself").

B.

Section 5021 of the FYCA provides:

(a) Upon the unconditional discharge by the commission of a convicted youth offender before the expiration of the maximum sentence imposed upon him, the conviction shall be automatically set aside and the commission shall issue to the youth offender a certificate to that effect.

(b) Where the youth offender has been placed on probation by the court, the court may, in its discretion unconditionally discharge such youth offender from probation prior to the expiration of the maximum period of probation theretofore fixed by the court which discharge shall automatically set aside the conviction, and the court shall issue to the youth offender a certificate to that effect.

18 U.S.C. § 5021 (West, 1976). (emphasis added.)

The issue is what "set-aside" means. The district court, while correctly noting that the issue is new to this circuit, reasoned literally that because Congress did not specifically use the word "expungement," they did not intend to empower the district court with such a remedy. We disagree.

In our view, the term "set aside" is ambiguous. The statute does not define the term "set aside." Since the statute does not offer a definition, and since the term has no common law connotation of which we are aware, it must be given its ordinary meaning. Chapman v. United States 114 L. Ed. 2d 524, 111 S. Ct. 1919, 1925 (1991); Moskal v. United States 498 U.S. 103, 111 S. Ct. 461, 468-70, 112 L. Ed. 2d 449 (1990). Black's Law Dictionary defines "set-aside" as "to reverse, vacate, cancel, annul, or revoke a judgment, order, etc." Black's Law Dictionary 1230 (5th ed. 1979). This definition is itself ambiguous ...


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