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Expungement bid fails for doctor who was cleared

4tth Circuit Seal FEAA Virginia doctor arrested after triggering suspicions on a college campus 20 years ago and tried for having a toxic chemical in a storage unit has lost his bid to have records of the charges removed from court records.

Although his convictions were vacated based on an unlawful arrest in 1995, Ray Mettetal Jr. said his criminal record is nonetheless causing him “adverse professional and personal consequences.” He asked the federal courts to expunge records of his case.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month refused. The court’s unpublished opinion is U.S.A. v. Mettetal (VLW 017-2-208-A).

Bizarre facts

Police at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee must have been befuddled when Mettetal showed up on campus Aug. 22, 1995. Loitering in a parking lot in 90-degree heat, the Harrisonburg doctor was wearing a fake Afro wig, a phony “Abraham Lincoln”-type beard, and a dark suit.

Mettetal told the cops he was looking for his girlfriend because he thought she might be seeing someone else, but he refused to provide the girlfriend’s name. He showed identification purportedly from the British West Indies in the name of Steven Ray Maupin. The police arrested Mettetal for criminal trespass.

That arrest led to several discoveries. Nashville police learned Mettetal’s identity and Virginia police then searched his home and office, finding false identification documents in the “Maupin” name and other suspicious items. A tip led police to a storage unit rented in the “Maupin” name. Inside was a jar of the deadly toxin ricin.

Tainted evidence

Mettetal was twice tried and convicted for possession of a toxin for use as a weapon and for having false identification documents. Both convictions were overturned by the 4th Circuit on grounds that the damning evidence was the fruit of his unconstitutional arrest at Vanderbilt.

After 14 years passed, Mettetal returned to the trial court to ask U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon to expunge his record. He said the records of his arrest and overturned convictions were causing him various difficulties.

Overcoming medical license difficulties, Mettetal remains a practicing physician and he told the court he “continues to be harassed by the local medical community” and has been unable to obtain hospital privileges due to the “adverse information on his record.” Records of the Virginia Board of Medicine show Rockingham Memorial Hospital suspended Mettetal’s privileges in 1995.

Mettetal also complained that his court record served to block his request for a handgun license in Tennessee, despite no further run-ins with the law.

In additional to his request for equitable relief, Mettetal claimed that the records should be expunged on grounds that the appeals court ruled his arrest was unconstitutional.

Moon rejected the expungement request on jurisdictional grounds. The 4th Circuit came to the same conclusion: Mettetal’s bid to wipe the record clean fell short.

Equitable argument

Mettetal urged the court to consider his personal situation and use its “inherent equitable power” to remove the stain on his record.

Federal courts created their own narrow authority to do so. Neither the U.S. Constitution nor any federal statute gives courts the power to expunge a criminal record like Mettetal’s, the 4th Circuit’s opinion said.

Courts have invoked the concept of ancillary jurisdiction to resolve disputes even absent an express statutory grant of jurisdiction. The power “must be sparingly exercised,” the appeals panel said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court spoke to the issue in 1994, no federal appeals court has found a basis to expunge judicial records for purely equitable reasons. Seven circuits held that the high court’s decision bars such expungement.

The 4th Circuit panel was in accord with those rulings. Mettetal’s problems arose after he was arrested and involve facts separate and distinct from the criminal proceedings themselves, the court said. “[W]e join the unified front of circuit authority in rejecting his claim,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III for the panel.

Unlawful arrest basis

A new issue was raised by court-appointed amicus counsel Carol Anne Szurkowski of Washington. She contended that the appeals court’s declaration that Mettetal’s arrest and convictions were unlawful gave the needed connection to support ancillary jurisdiction.

Assuming without deciding that the connection was sufficient to support jurisdiction, the 4th Circuit panel nonetheless ruled that the expungement bid failed on the merits.

“The judiciary and the public possess an independent interest in maintaining a full and accurate account of court proceedings and judiciary’s own role in the vindication of criminal defendants’ constitutional rights,” Wilkinson wrote. “We find no reason to believe that this interest is not present here.”

“Because the Court lacks jurisdiction to rule on Mettetal’s claim, his motion for expungement will be denied,” the court said.

The government was represented by Rachel B. Swartz of the Charlottesville U.S. attorney’s office.

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