Buechler v. State, 103,576. Released for Publication by Order of the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division No. 3.

Citation2008 OK CIV APP 1,175 P.3d 966
Decision Date07 December 2007
Docket NumberNo. 103,576. Released for Publication by Order of the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division No. 3.,103,576. Released for Publication by Order of the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division No. 3.
PartiesIn the Matter of the Expungement of the Record of Jeff Alan BUECHLER, a/k/a Jeffrey Alan Buechler, Appellant, v. The STATE of Oklahoma, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma

Appeal from the District Court of Tulsa County, Oklahoma; Honorable Tom C. Gillert, Judge.

REVERSED AND REMANDED

Howard D. Perkins, Jr., Howard D. Perkins & Associates, P.C., Broken Arrow, OK, for Appellant.

David T. Iski, Assistant District Attorney, Tulsa, OK, for Appellee.

BAY MITCHELL, Vice-Chief Judge.

¶ 1 Appellant, Jeff Buechler, appeals the trial court's denial of his petition to seal and/or expunge his arrest record. In view of the decision in Knight v. State, 2002 OK CR 19, 46 P.3d 158, the trial court ruled Buechler's petition for expungement barred by res judicator We disagree. We find Buechler's allegations and evidence of a change of circumstances since the denial of his first expungement petition sufficient to make a prima facie showing of harm and shift the burden of production to the State. We reverse and remand with directions to the trial court to balance the harm to Buechler against any relevant evidence regarding the public interest in keeping his arrest records open.

¶ 2 The following facts are undisputed: On August 4, 1994, Buechler was arrested on charges brought by his ex-wife and charged with five felony counts in Tulsa County District Court Case No. CF-1994-3694. Four of the five counts were dismissed within one year of Buechler's arrest, to wit: The trial court sustained Buechler's demurrer to Counts I and III, the two felony counts,1 dismissing them October 3, 1994, with costs to the State. The trial court dismissed Counts IV and V, the two misdemeanor counts,2 March 29, 1995, also with costs to the State. The only count the trial court did not dismiss within one year was the one to which Buechler plead guilty, Count II, a misdemeanor charge of Reckless Handling of a Firearm (reduced from the original felony charge of Pointing a Weapon). The trial court eventually dismissed Count II as well, pursuant to 22 O.S. § 991c (deferred sentence) but not until September 27, 1996.

¶ 3 On October 31, 1996, approximately one month after final resolution of all the criminal charges against him, Buechler filed his first petition to seal and/or expunge his criminal and court records. Judge Turnbull, who had presided over the underlying criminal proceedings, held a hearing on the matter January 17, 1997.3 A docket entry dated April 16, 1997, shows Judge Turnbull denied Buechler's first petition to seal his arrest records but permitted expungement of the related court records. This brief summary of Judge Turnbull's action appearing on the docket sheet of Case No. CF-1994-3694 is the only record related to Buechler's initial motion for expungement we have before us on appeal. Buechler did not appeal the trial court's denial of his first expungement effort.

¶ 4 Buechler filed the instant petition March 6, 2006, approximately ten years after the trial court denied his original petition to seal and/or expunge his arrest records. He sought expungement under 22 O.S. §§ 18(4) and 19.4 In an order dated June 21, 2006, the trial court found Buechler was authorized to move for expungement under 22 O.S. § 18. It found Buechler qualifies for expungement of Count II under 22 O.S. § 18(7).5 However, relying on Knight v. State, 2002 OK CR 19, 46 P.3d 158, the trial court held Buechler's instant petition barred by res judicata, finding Buechler "has presented no evidence of harm to his privacy interest that was not previously litigated before Judge Turnbull. Specifically, Petitioner is asking this. Court to do what Judge Turnbull would not do." Buechler appeals.

¶ 5 Whether res judicata bars Buechler's expungement petition presents a mixed question of law and fact, See e.g., Barker v. State Ins. Fund, 2001 OK 94, ¶ 6 40 P.3d 463, 466; Munsingwear, Inc. v. Tullis, 1976 OK 187, ¶ 8, 557 P.2d 899, 902. "[A] deferential standard of review applies to resolutions of disputed facts when supported by reasonable evidence; an independent judgment standard of review applies to the ultimate conclusion that these facts do or do not trigger preclusion." Barker, ¶ 6, 40 P.3d at 466, quoting AJ Bayless v. Indus. Comm'n of Ariz., 179 Ariz. 434, 880 P.2d 654, 659 (App. 1993). Given that the underlying facts are not disputed, the question becomes solely one of law which we review de novo. Barker, ¶ 6, 40 P.3d at 466. Under the de novo standard, we have "plenary, independent and non-deferential authority to determine whether the lower court erred in its legal rulings." American Airlines v. Hervey, 2001 OK 74, ¶ 11, 33 P.3d 47, 50.

¶ 6 The plain purpose of the Oklahoma's expungement statutes "is to afford special relief in the form of a full or partial sealing of records relating to a person's involvement or suspected involvement in a crime. It is clearly intended to aid those who are acquitted, exonerated, or who otherwise deserve a second chance at a `clean record.'" State of Okla. v. McMahon, 1998 OK CIV APP 103, ¶ 9, 959 P.2d 607, 609. "[A] motion for expungement hinges on the final disposition, or lack thereof, of criminal charges." Hoover v. State, 2001 OK CR 16, ¶ 4, 29 P.3d 591, 593. Any person whose circumstances meet one of the categories in 22 O.S. Supp.2004 § 18 "may petition the district court of the district in which the arrest information pertaining to the person is located for the sealing of all or any part of the record, except basic identification."6

¶ 7 Because four of the counts against him were dismissed within one year of his arrest, Buechler is authorized to file a petition for expungement of those charges under 22 O.S. Supp.2004 § 18(4). Were this Buechler's first expungement petition, the fact that his circumstances fall into a § 18 category would be sufficient to make a prima facie showing of harm. See McMahon, ¶ 4, 959 P.2d 607, 608 (holding when one of the § 18 "circumstances is shown to exist, a prima facie showing of harm is made"); see also Hoover, ¶ 6, 29 P.3d at 594 (explaining "§ 19 creates a rebuttable presumption of harm after a § 18 category is met").

¶ 8 The procedure for making a prima facie showing of harm is different in the instant case, however, because Buechler is renewing his expungement petition following the denial of his earlier petition. The case Knight v. State, 2002 OK CR 19, 46 P.3d 158, appears to be the only published opinion in Oklahoma addressing the issue of a renewed petition to seal and/or expunge criminal records. Knight was tried by a jury and convicted of first degree manslaughter but subsequently granted a new trial and acquitted of all charges. Following a hearing, the trial court denied his motion for expungement. Much as in the instant action, other than the docket entry memorializing the denial of Knight's initial petition, no documents regarding the expungement matter appeared in the record before the appellate court, and Knight did not appeal the denial of his first motion. Four years later, Knight filed a new petition for expungement. The State objected, arguing Knight's expungement petition was barred by res judicata, and the trial court agreed. Knight appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals.7

¶ 9 Noting § 19(C) specifically provides "[a]ny order entered" pursuant to that section may be appealed, the Knight court reasoned "[t]his language arguably suggests a person could file more than one expungement request and appeal each time he or she did." Knight, ¶ 7, 46 P.3d at 160. "However, the very nature of an appeal suggests at least some degree of finality. It does not seem to us the Legislature would desire an applicant whose petition for expungement has been denied to have the ability to simply re-file again and again until he ultimately wins." Id., ¶ 8, 46 P.3d at 160. The appellate court continued:

A person who has lost on his or her first petition for expungement ... must allege and support by affidavit or similar proof a change of circumstances in his second or subsequent expungement petition in order to make a prima facie showing of harm, which may then be rebutted by the State. That change of circumstances must address some new, "harm to privacy of the person in interest or dangers of unwarranted adverse consequences" not previously litigated:

Id., ¶ 9, 46 P.3d at 160 (emphasis added). The appellate court found Knight "has made no allegation or showing of harm, a change in circumstances, or a danger of unwarranted circumstances" and, not having any testimony or documentation before it to the contrary, that "[f]or all we know, the circumstances are identical to the circumstances of four years ago" when Knight's petition was first adjudicated and denied. Id., ¶ 11, 46 P.3d at 160 (emphasis added). It held res judicata barred Knight from relitigating the expungement issue without "alleging, and supporting with sufficient proof, a change of circumstances" and denied his expungement application but advised Knight he "may reapply for expungement upon alleging and making a sufficient showing of a change of circumstances." Id., ¶ 12.

¶ 10 The question before us is thus whether Buechler, in support of the renewed expungement petition before us on appeal, alleged and supported by proof a change of circumstances sufficient to make a prima facie showing of harm and shift the burden of proof to the State. On the one hand, Buechler acknowledges he based his first expungement petition on the argument his arrest record would adversely and unfairly affect his employment opportunities and that his present petition is grounded, at least in part, on similar claims. On the other hand, we know Buechler filed his first expungement petition only one month after all of the criminal charges against him were...

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