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Innocence and Justice Clinic helps clear criminal records

After years of worrying about a criminal charge he incurred three years ago, city native Josh Sargent was given a second chance Tuesday afternoon.

Sargent, who graduated from Western Carolina University in December, received a DUI and underaged drinking ticket in 2010. Though the charges were dropped, they still appear on his criminal record, and the 23-year-old said as his graduation date approached, his concern about how that youthful indiscretion would impact his future grew.

Sargent

Sargent

“As far as careers go, it’s definitely a red flag when you’re trying to get hired,” Sargent said. “You can’t just walk around with a DUI on your record.” Luckily for Sargent, he won’t have to carry the burden. Upon visiting the Feb. 19 Expunction/Certificate of Relief Clinic at the Experiment in Self-Reliance (ESR), Sargent learned that he is eligible for an expunction, a once in a lifetime procedure that will erase the charges from his record for good. Sargent must obtain additional paperwork in order for his expunction to be processed, but attorneys on hand at the clinic told him he was on track to become the first client of the six week-old clinic to successfully obtain an expunction.

Hosted by the Darryl Hunt Project, Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Wake Forest University Innocence and Justice Clinic and the WFU School of Law Pro Bono Project, the clinic helps local people alleviate the collateral effects of criminal charges. Attorneys and WFU law students work with local residents to determine if they are eligible for expunctions or Certificates of Relief, and walk those who qualify through the process that is required to obtain them.

“We kind of wanted to jump start this here in Forsyth County with the new statutes that came out last year by legislators to help erase records and help people get back on their feet,” said Darryl Hunt, who conceived of the project as a means of helping as many people avoid the consequences of having criminal charges. “…It’s gone good. We think we’re able to help some people and some we’re able to do some referrals and look at some other options.”

The General Assembly has expanded the criteria that make one eligible for expunctions, allowing those who were convicted of certain misdemeanors and low level felonies prior to the age of 18 and those who have only one misdemeanor or low level felony committed 15 years ago or more to have their records expunged. The Certificates of Relief are a brand new effort launched in December that is extended to people who were convicted of one misdemeanor or low level felony.

“This is a great opportunity for the people who are currently eligible for these programs to get a fresh start,” said Innocence and Justice Clinic Staff Attorney Vanessa Zboreak. “And if this affects a critical mass of people, it also helps the broader community.”

Unlike the expunctions, the certificates do not erase an individual’s record, but they serve as a court approved vote of confidence in the certificate bearer and allow for certain advantages, including licensure in various fields of employment. Those who obtain certificates are not required to list their previous convictions on their employment applications, explained attorney Mark Rabil, director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic and the attorney who helped free Hunt from prison for a murder he did not commit. Of the 140,000 North Carolinians with criminal records, about 38,000 are eligible to amend their records through certificates or expunction, according to organizers of the free clinic, which has been held the first and third Tuesdays of the month since Jan. 15.

“I think the extension is a great thing,” said Jesse McCoy, one of three Legal Aid attorneys on hand for the Clinic. “What you may have done at a young age shouldn’t define how you live the rest of your life.”

Those who do not qualify for either service are asked to share their stories with Hunt Project volunteer Nicole Little, who is compiling them for the Project to use in persuading legislators to enact more laws that lessen the collateral consequences for those convicted of minor crimes.

(From left) Darryl Hunt poses with attorneys Jesse McCoy, Vanessa Zboreak, Attorney Marcella Farmer, Mark Rabil and Liza Baron.

(From left) Darryl Hunt poses with attorneys Jesse McCoy, Vanessa Zboreak, Attorney Marcella Farmer, Mark Rabil and Liza Baron.

“This is a foot in the door,” Rabil said of the legislation. “We’re going to try to help the people that we can, and gather the stories of the people that we can’t… We’re going to come up with examples so that in a few years when we can get the legislature to consider this, maybe we can expand it.”

Little, a senior sociology major at Wake Forest, said working with the clients who aren’t eligible for the clinic’s services can be an emotional process, as many come away discouraged.

“The good thing about having the story at the end is that we’re providing them the opportunity to further explain their circumstances … and this is something that’s going to lead to something,” said the Carver High School alumna. “It kind of leaves them with a voice.”

The aspiring civil rights attorney said she identifies with the clients she meets because she too faces obstacles because of a two year-old shoplifting charge. She is hoping that the clinic will be able to help her, too.

Nicole Little

Nicole Little

“That was like a shadow that stayed behind me, regardless of all the people I’ve tried to help, regardless of me getting this degree that says Wake Forest on it – is it going to mean a thing?” the 21 year-old questioned. “I almost question my self worth, my self value, but I know my character.”

Little likened the hurdles people with criminal records face to double jeopardy, because she says they continue suffering for their crimes long after their debts to society are paid.

Ohio native and first year law student Nora Fakhri said volunteering at the clinic has been an enlightening experience for her.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much already. Having the opportunity to work with clients last time and then getting to fill out the papers that will actually go to court has been really good,” commented the 24 year-old. “I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to come here and get to work with attorneys and with actual clients.”

Legal Aid of North Carolina Managing Attorney Liza Baron said the existence of the clinic will allow Legal Aid, which serves primarily low income clients, to expand its expunction services to other counties where they haven’t historically been offered.

“More people can be helped,” said Baron, who has served the agency for 16 years. “Even though our budget has been decreased, the service can still be provided here in Forsyth County, and that’s really key.”

The next Expunction/Certificate of Relief Clinic is slated for Tuesday, March 5, from 3-5 p.m. at Experiment in Self Reliance, 1550 University Court. For more information, contact the Innocence and Justice Clinic at 336-758-6111.