L aw 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.”

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 […]

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