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Expungements, Housing, and Finding Work in South Carolina

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

You did something when you were younger. Something kind of stupid that got you busted, way way back when you were a different person. And now you can't seem to find a decent place to live or a decent job because of an arrest –  not even a conviction! –  that's still stuck on your record.

The first thing a lot of people in this position think of is a pardon, says Jamie Bell, managing attorney for South Carolina Legal Services' office in Rock Hill. But pardons are hard to come by. A much safer bet is an expungement.

An expungement is the erasure of an arrest or conviction from the permanent record. whereas a pardon actually stays on the record – it just shows you were pardoned for it.

Not everything can be expunged, of course. In fact, there are only eight categories of offenses that are eligible to even be considered for expungement in South Carolina. They are, accoring to SC Legal:

  • Dismissed or not-prosecuted charges, or not-guilty” verdicts
  • Charges dismissed after completing Pre-Trial Intervention or an Alcohol Education Program 
  • A first offense

       – misdemeanor conviction under the Fraudulent Check Law
       – simple possession of marijuana/hashish

       – that carries a maximum 30 days in jail and or $500 fine (excluding motor vehicle and wildlife-related offenses)

        – under the  Youthful Offender Act (excluding motor vehicle offenses)

        – misdemeanor for failiing to stop for a blue light

  • Juvenile Offenses

Even if an offense meets one of these criteria, certain conditions also apply. Most carry a time period of several years before they can be expunged, and in that interim, if you had another offense or a repeat of the one you're looking to get expunged, your request might be denied.

The frustrating thing for people with minor offenses committed long ago, says Tiffney Love, a staff attorney at SC Legal in Rock Hil, is that when an employer sees an offense on a crmiminal background check, there is no context.

Say, for example, you're trying to get a job in home care but an employer gets your record and sees the phrase "domestic violence" on it. If you only had a single Class-3 domestic violence charge (a misdemeanor) a decade and a half ago, an employer – or an education center offering certifications for nursing assistants –  will not know that your offense was a lone, minor infraction, Love says. So getting that off your rcord would be smart.

Something to keep in mind, Love says, is that it's wise to pick the expungeable offense that's causing you the most trouble and get rid of that. People seeking to clear their names, remember, think of pardons first, which, also remember, are a serious roll of the dice. So if a pardon attempt fails, that nagging old misdemeanor can still keep you from finding a job.

Mark Fessler, SC Legal's head of housing in Greenville, says it can also keep you from getting a place to live. Not so much in buying a house – which someone who’s unable to find work is unlikely to do anyway – but in renting an apartment from a landlord who does a background check.

And if you have an internet connection and a few dollars, you can do a background check on anyone. Like it is with employers, landlords will only see the type of crime, without context. If a private landlord has an internal policy of who to not rent to, or if a public housing entity sees a certain set of issues, an applicant can simply be passed over for the next in line, Fessler says. Because there's always a next in line for public housing, and it's extremely difficult to prove that a landlord has illegally overlooked you than to prove one illegally dismissed you.

Love says the consequences of people being unable to find work and housing are plentiful and serious. With no opportunities, there's not enough money heading back into the community and too much idle time for people living in a bad environment to find alternative ways to make their way through life.