North Carolina House votes to end automatic erasure of dropped charges, not-guilty verdicts

Criminal defendants who are found not guilty or have their charges dismissed will no longer automatically have those cases stricken from their permanent records if a bill passed by the North Carolina House on Wednesday becomes law. 

A 2023 law sought to speed the cleansing of criminal records for defendants in the state that were not ultimately convicted of crimes after being charged. Proponents of the process say automatic “expunction” of the charges clears the way for employment and other opportunities that could be denied when found on criminal background checks. 

Senate Bill 565, which passed the House 59-44 on Wednesday and will now head to the upper chamber for consideration, eliminates automatic expungement of not-guilty verdicts and dismissed charges. 

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican representing Surry and Wilkes counties, said automatic expunction often proceeds faster than the criminal justice system can physically operate and causes other logistical problems that need to be ironed out. In the meantime, defendants still have the right to petition the court to expunge their records.

Opponents of the measure said it undercuts the bipartisan Second Chance Act of 2019, which guaranteed automatic expunctions to people who have not guilty verdicts or who have their cases dismissed by a district attorney. The time required to fill out the necessary paperwork to obtain an expungement and the cost of hiring an attorney to see the petition through the courts are both prohibitive to many state residents, opponents also argued. 

At least 400,000 North Carolinians’ record were automatically expunged of charges for which they were not convicted in the first nine months after the 2019 law took effect, said Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham County. The process was then paused for further study while another 1.2 million state residents waiting to have their records cleared. 

Rep. Amos Quick, a Democrat from Guilford County, said the Second Chance Act was the product of a “reckoning in our state and our nation to correct and eliminate some barriers to full participation in our society.”

“Please forgive my grammar, but I reckon we ain’t reckoning no more. In 2020, people who are not guilty and have had their charges dismissed were promised a second chance. Now there’s an element of this bill that is akin to Lucy moving the football from Charlie Brown. Except this is not a cartoon. This is real life affecting 1.2 million North Carolinians who are waiting to receive what we promised them and 2020.”

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