Saturday, July 20, 2024

Conference chair slips in provision to stall automatic expunctions, NC Chamber poll shows broad bipartisan support

Local representatives expressed confusion this month after a broadly supported provision to automate expunctions for dismissed and “not guilty” charges was eliminated in a state committee. Weeks later, the lawmaker who pushed the removal slipped language into a different bill to require a suspension of the provision for another year. (Courtesy General Assembly)

NORTH CAROLINA — Local representatives expressed confusion this month after a broadly supported provision to automate expunctions for dismissed and “not guilty” charges was eliminated in a state committee. Weeks later, the lawmaker who pushed the removal slipped language into a different bill to require a suspension of the provision for another year.

READ MORE: NHC representatives express confusion after bipartisan Second Chance Act provision gutted in committee

Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-New Hanover) introduced the North Carolina Second Chance Act in 2020. It included expanded eligibility for expunging nonviolent charges that create barriers to employment, housing and other opportunities. He described it as a “jobs bill” because it would help individuals excluded from opportunities contribute to the economy. 

The bill also updated the petition-based method individuals use to attain expunctions. Because many residents were unable to afford an attorney, didn’t know whether or not they were eligible, and had difficulty navigating the petition process, lawmakers automated expunctions for dismissed and “not guilty” charges.

Administrative Office of the Courts spokesperson Graham Wilson sent Port City Daily documents showing AOC estimates more than one million cases — and substantially more total charges — remain eligible for expunction but remain unprocessed. In May, AOC deputy director Joseph Kyzer estimated the accumulating backlog would take 14 months to process. He supported the passage of the Second Chance Act with a six month effective delay date.

According to the documents, AOC processed around 500,000 total expunctions following the provision’s passage from December 2021 until its suspension in August 2022 — triple the monthly rate of previous expunctions. Technical issues related to file retention led the Administrative Office of the Courts to pause the program and convene a working group of justice system stakeholders to draft recommended solutions.

Those recommendations were part of Senate Bill 565, which passed the state Senate in 2023. But last month, House Judiciary 2 Committee chair Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) passed a version of the bill that gutted the provision. Stevens cited technical issues with the previous bill but said she was open to revisiting in the future. She did not respond to PCD’s questions about the removal, such as if any group or individual had lobbied against it.

Davis and Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) — a member of the committee — told PCD they didn’t understand Stevens’ action as the new version had broad public support among stakeholders involved in a years-long process to address the technical problems, including the Conference of District Attorneys, State Bureau of Investigation, Conference of Clerks, Department of Motor Vehicles, attorneys and advocates.

The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce published a poll Wednesday showing support for the provision among voters as well:

“We do not see the same evidence of partisan divide we see other places. 68% of Republicans support this reform and they are joined by 74% of Democrats and 75% of unaffiliated voters. It is clear, most voters see this reform as a fairness issue — regardless of their partisan affiliation.” 

PCD reached out to Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and the New Hanover County District Attorney’s office to ask their views of the automatic expunction provision but did not receive a response by press.

On June 5, Davis broke with his caucus on the House rules committee to vote against removing automated expunctions, but the bill passed 59 to 45. 

“With all due respect to representative Stevens, you will very rarely — this is probably the first time you’ve heard me get up and say I will vote against something,” Davis said on the House floor. “I believe what was originally done was the right thing to do, and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do now to change it.”

In the same session, Stevens put forward another bill — Senate Bill 303 — but did not mention she had added language to require the suspension of automated expunctions until July 2025. The pause was previously set to expire in July 2024; PCD reached out to Davis and AOC to ask if they were aware of the change and will update upon response.

The Conference of District Attorneys has publicly endorsed the version of S.B. 565 with automated expunctions, but members of the organization have opposed it in the past. Emails obtained by Bolts Mag show conference director Kim Spahos sought to repeal the provision in 2022, arguing it hindered DAs ability to prosecute cases. Spahos did not respond to PCD’s questions about the recent removal of the provision.

Emails obtained by the Raleigh News & Observer show the conference has been an influential lobbying force in preventing criminal justice reform legislation, such as criminal conviction reviews included in HB 901 and eliminating life sentences for juveniles. The general assembly-established conference had a $2.1 million budget in 2023 and the House’s new proposed budget includes a $178,000 appropriation for conference personnel.

Stevens has a close relationship with the conference, as she was the group’s Legislator of the Year in 2019 and sponsored a bill to allow the group to have more lobbyists last year. 

Stevens was also the primary sponsor of 2023’s HB 116 — “Modify Laws Affecting District Attorneys” — which added public records exemptions for the conference’s communications with staff; the general assembly exempted themselves from public records requests the same year. Leaders of the conference also do not submit statements of economic interest to the Ethics Commission, unlike other elected officials and prominent public servants. 


ips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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