Law students Shelby Hansen and Kat Eschels chatted amiably while hovered over an open laptop near the kitchen at Samaritan Ministries.
A handful of classmates waited nearby. They were all waiting for some walk-in business at the Wake Forest University School of Law’s expungement clinic.
The students, in between sweating exams, beefing up resumes and scrounging paying jobs, showed up to help people erase petty convictions from their permanent records — a population not accustomed to getting a break from the legal system.
“On a good day, we might screen 20 or 25 people,” Hansen said. “A slow day, maybe five or 10.”
On this recent, random late fall Tuesday afternoon, not a whole lot was happening. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“It’s a challenge for the students doing this,” said District Judge Denise Hartsfield, an adviser for the expungement clinic. “People who could use this can be transient or not in the same place all the time with consistency. It’s difficult.”
But not impossible.
It’s a process
The word “expungement” conjures up a lot of images and ideas — most of them wrong.
Most of the time, an expungement doesn’t mean a completely clean slate. It’s certainly not a get out of jail free card, and it clearly falls far short of an outright pardon.
But that doesn’t mean getting a felony or misdemeanor conviction wiped from a record isn’t worthwhile. Surprisingly, expungements also apply to cases that were dismissed or those in which a defendant was found not guilty.
“Even highly educated people are surprised to find out that a dismissal, a ‘not guilty’ or a deferred prosecution still appears on your record,” Hartsfield said.
A criminal record — convictions and arrests — are forever. They can hamper job searches, applications to rent a home, prevent people from enlisting in the service and hamstring college applications. A record stains anything that requires a background check.
“The lesson I’ve learned over 18 years rendering judgment and handing down sentences is that most (defendants) don’t hear ‘case dismissed’ or ‘not guilty,’” the judge said. “All they know is they’re going out the front door, not the side door (to jail.) They never think about it again until it comes up later.
“When a citation comes into the system, it stays there.”
Unfortunately, that “later” is often when it matters. Being turned down for a job or a better place to live can be devastating.
“Employers don’t care if something was dismissed,” Hansen said. “If you take care of dismissals, maybe you can get a sheet down to one page.”
At the Samaritan Ministries, law students were poised to start the process with a simple screening that takes five, 10 minutes tops.
They’d sit down with a prospective client and spell out the rules: one felony conviction within the past five years or one misdemeanor within the past 10 can be expunged. More if multiple convictions were consolidated into one for sentencing. Dismissals and not guilty verdicts are different.
Once that’s explained, a student can do some basic record checks to determine eligibility.
“Sometimes people have the right records with them and sometimes they don’t,” Hansen said. “Sometimes people don’t disclose everything. Maybe they have 20 felonies. But sometimes you can look at something and say ‘We can’t help you with this, but maybe we can help you with that.’”
Hope for help
If someone meets basic eligibility requirements, the law students send their files down to the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.
There, a more complete records search takes place and gets certified before a judge can sign off on the expungement. The whole process can take months, and requires some determination.
And not surprisingly, some expungement applications — even those destined for success — can fall by the wayside.
“I have a stack of 40 or so in the process who are able to get some dismissals and ‘not guiltys’ off their record, and we’re having a hard time finding them to come sign their forms,” Hartsfield said.
For those who’ve never been in trouble with the courts, that may sound strange. The temptation, too, is to fall back on a simple answer: Don’t break the law.
But in the real world, it’s not always that simple. Substance abuse, mental health problems, a less-than-ideal home life, lack of opportunity, a whole host of factors can pile up. People make mistakes.
Still, a glimmer of hope for a second chance can make a difference. That’s what brought Willie Rennick to the expungement clinic on a slow Tuesday.
As a younger man, he’d gotten into trouble for low-level drug use. Yet he managed after moving away to finish a degree program in marriage and family therapy and moving forward, he’d like to clear up what he can.
“This is a good thing,” he said. “I hope they can help.”
They just might. And if they don’t, it won’t be for a lack of trying.