Aiken County residents on Thursday got the inside scoop on how to expunge a criminal record.
The discussion came during an workshop hosted at Aiken Technical College by the Lower Savannah Council of Governments. The discussions were moderated by former Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan, who said she’s asked frequently why a prosecutor wants to help people get rid of their criminal records.
“Because I think, in the right circumstances, it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I spent my career putting a lot of people in jail, but I also believe not everyone needs to be branded forever. I always say, ‘We’ve all fallen down. We’ve just got to get up.’”
Morgan explained to the audience that expungements are a way to “erase” or “take away” a criminal record.
“The purpose of an expungement is to restore a person to the status that he occupied before the arrest or conviction,” said Deborah Truesdale, a paralegal for the Second Circuit Solicitor’s Office. She added that each state has different guidelines for expungements; for example, South Carolina allows expungements on dismissals and certain convictions, but Georgia does not allow them on convictions.
Only offenses that fit into one of eight categories can be expunged: dismissed or nol prossed (not prosecuted); charges dismissed because of successful completion of pre-trial intervention or alcohol education programs; first-offense misdemeanor convictions under the fraudulent check law; first offense of simple possession of marijuana; first offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 30 days or $500; first offense under the Youthful Offender Act; first offense on a misdemeanor failure to stop for blue lights; or juvenile offenses.
Truesdale said a majority of General Sessions convictions have a three-year waiting period before a person can apply for expungement, during which they can’t have any more convictions. Some offenses have exceptions.
South Carolina only allows expungement on one conviction, and for those with multiple convictions, only the first can be expunged, Truesdale said.
“You’ve got to remember, it takes time. You can’t get this thing done overnight,” she said, adding that the expungement process routinely takes eight to 12 weeks.
For a non-conviction in magistrate or municipal court, one must first contact the court to apply for expungement, Truesdale said. For all other types of expungement, one should contact the solicitor in the county where the charge or conviction occurred.
Several fees must be paid for an expungement, including a $250 fee to the solicitor, a $35 fee to the clerk of court, and a $25 fee to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.
Many convictions cannot be expunged, at which point a pardon is normally the second option, according to Marie Boulton, agent in charge for probation and parole for Aiken County in the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
A pardon is the state’s forgiveness of a person for all the legal consequences of a crime. Boulton said a pardon does not remove the conviction from someone’s record, but the conviction is noted on the record as “pardoned.”
“That’s better than nothing,” she said, adding that a pardon allows an offender to do a variety of things such as vote, hold office, serve on jury duty and obtain a variety of licenses than a conviction typically prevents.
To be eligible for a pardon, an offender must have discharged their sentence or completed probation. If on parole, they must have completed at least five years under supervision with no other arrests.
Boulton said an attorney is not necessary to obtain a pardon. An offender must first complete an application, which includes a list of all their convictions. They must also provide three letters of reference.
“You don’t want to get the dude down the street who’s selling dope,” she said. “All references are verified.”
After paying a $100 fee, a hearing is scheduled before a board. Boulton said there is no guarantee an offender will receive a pardon, and the burden is to show that the offender is a changed person.
“That really has to come from the heart – why you want this pardon,” she said. “Whether it’s to change your life, own your own business – you really need to articulate when you put it on the application.”
The pardon process can take seven to nine months, Boulton said.
‘A rare remedy’
Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said expungement for federal offenses is a “rare remedy.” While local police and solicitors tend to a variety of offenses, federal law enforcement’s focus is smaller.
“What we focus on are repeat, violent offenders and large-scale fraud,” Drake said. “They’re not going to tell you we don’t do anything else, but that’s the focus of our work. We just don’t routinely expunge.”
About 20 people were in attendance at the afternoon session, but Morgan said the morning session was a full house. Some of those in attendance had “compelling” stories, including a man who had not committed a crime in 50 years.
“He said, ‘I stole a car when I was young and I can’t get a hunting license to take my grandchild fishing,’” Morgan recalled. “Those are the kinds of stories – there are reasons we should be compassionate about some of these.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard.