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NC Senate panel okays bill to roll back automatic expungements of ‘not guilty,’ ‘dismissed’ charges

The North Carolina House Judiciary 2 Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would repeal automatic expungements of “not guilty” or “dismissed” charges from criminal records.

The committee approved a committee substitute for Senate Bill 565 on a voice vote. As NC Newsline previously reported, the original bill proposed to restart automatic expungements the legislature approved in 2020, but that were paused months later and have now been on hold for nearly two years.

In 2020, the Second Chance Act expanded the eligibility for expunging multiple nonviolent misdemeanor convictions and automated expungement of certain “dismissed” or “not guilty” charges. It also allowed prosecutors to petition for expungement for “dismissed” or “not guilty” charges and “youthful convictions.” The Second Chance Act was approved unanimously by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper.

The original version of SB 565, which was introduced in 2023, was crafted with the help of second chance advocates, district attorneys, law enforcement officials, lawmakers and others to improve the Second Chance Act after problems arose implementing the law.

“With any new system, implementation may present some problems but as we have seen in the many other states that passed similar laws, we have to be willing to work through these problems if we really want to address the second chance gap that’s evidenced by the data in our state,” said Whitley Carpenter of Forward Justice, a nonpartisan law, policy and strategy center that works to advance racial, social and economic justice.

But second chance advocates and several committee members opposed the new version of the bill, saying the General Assembly’s approval would create barriers to jobs and housing for people.

“We told people that if you are not guilty or if the DA [district attorney] has dismissed your charges, it will not be a scarlet letter on your chest to prevent you from getting jobs, getting housing,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), who previously served as a former chief district court judge.

In defending the proposal, Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) said the automatic expungement provision is fraught with problems.

“I can even start from the defendant’s perspective,” Stevens said. “If a defendant is arrested on a felony charge in District Court and has jail credit and the DA dismisses it in District Court but goes for an indictment, what about jail credit? The case has been dismissed, so there’s no jail credit.”

Stevens also said that if a defendant’s arrest is harvested on a website by potential landlords or employees and the charge is expunged, how will the person prove that it was expunged.

“It’s not that were not willing to visit it again and it’s not that there’s not a remedy to get your [arrest] expunged, but right now this system was not working for the clerks, for the DAs, even for the defendants,” Stevens said.

If the bill becomes law, Stevens said people seeking expungements would fill out a form through the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.

Several advocates spoke against the bill.

Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, said wealth plays a large role in who can get records expunged if there’s no process for automatic expungement.

“People with money who could afford an attorney and pay $1,500 to file for this kind of remedy could get relief, poor people could not,” Atkinson said.

He reminded lawmakers of their 2019 commitment to address the inequity.

“There was complete consensus that sentencing people to a life sentence to poverty for contact with the criminal legal system was wrong, it did not make public safety sense, it did not make economic sense,” Atkinson said. “What I know about this state is, when we make commitment to something, no matter what the challenges may be, we see those commitments through.”

Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, shared a story about her brother who got into trouble as a youth but later became a Wrightsville Beach police officer.

Fortunately, for her brother, their parents had the money to hire a lawyer, Butler said.

“He was one of those young men who had the privilege this gentleman [Atkinson] spoke of,” Butler said. “My father intervened and hired a lawyer and had it expunged.”

She said that every person in the state deserves a second chance to “pursue their dreams, become productive citizens.”

Kristie Puckett, senior project manager at Forward Justice, said she is a survivor of gun violence and sexual assault.

Puckett said she want the person who harmed her to have housing and a job.

“I understand when people don’t have those things, they are exposed to more violence and are more likely to engage in violence because of it,” Puckett said. “These types of policies do not keep people safe. They only satisfy the thirst for punishment, which isn’t the same as my safety.”

Quisha Mallette, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center’s Fair Chance project, said expungements can give people access to housing, employment and other resources needed to support themselves or their families.

Mallette said that early implementation of the Second Chance Act saw successful expungement of more than 400,000 cases over nine months.

“I ask that you vote against this proposed PCS to Senate Bill 565 and allow the process that is in place to continue,” Mallette said.

The bill was referred to the committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House.

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