Calhoun County Courthouse

The Calhoun County Courthouse. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star/file)

Dozens of Calhoun County residents, accused of crimes but never convicted, have been able to get their criminal records cleared under a 2014 law that allows those records to be expunged, according numbers from the Calhoun County Circuit Clerk’s office.

Prosecutors were initially skeptical of the law, but Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said on Thursday he’s opposed only one of the expungement requests that came across his desk since the law passed.

“They could probably expand it a good deal more without harming the public,” McVeigh said of the law.

When lawmakers passed the expungement bill in 2014, Alabama was one of only five states that had no official pathway for clearing someone’s past criminal record.

Most states allowed expungement for people who’d been accused but not convicted of a crime. A few states allowed minor misdemeanors to be stricken from the public record even if the defendant was found guilty. In Alabama, even a dropped charge or one rejected by a grand jury would show up in a person’s arrest record.

In the year after the law passed, expungements were few, and advocates for expungement worried that the high cost and paperwork might drive some people away. Lawyers at the time said the process could cost as much as $3,000 in legal fees.

But in Calhoun County, at least, the offer found some takers. In 2014, there were 10 expungements in Calhoun County courts. In 2016, there were 44.

All of those requests came at some point to McVeigh’s office, where prosecutors have a chance to raise objections. So far, McVeigh has objected to only one request, from someone who seemed to be lying about prior arrests on their paperwork.

Most involved arrests for prescription drug possession, theft or receiving stolen property, McVeigh said. Some of those arrests could have involved simple misunderstandings, he said: someone returns a relative’s borrowed car too late or a receipt turns up for goods police believed to be stolen.

“You might be arrested for having prescription drugs that aren’t in a bottle, and then you show up with your prescription,” McVeigh said.

The law doesn’t allow expungement for violent crimes such as rape or murder, McVeigh said.

It’s unclear whether the entire state has seen growth in expungements – even though the 2014 law requires the state court system to compile annual reports if the Legislature requests it.

“I’m not sure that request has ever been made,” said Scott Hoyem, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Courts.

Further complicating the count is the fact that some circuit judges seem to have offered expungements even before the law explicitly allowed them. Calhoun County’s numbers show 27 expungements in 2012 and 2013 – before the expungement law passed.

Circuit Clerk Kim McCarson said those expungements were likely from former Circuit Judge Joel Laird, who handled cases in the county’s drug court. Attempts to reach Laird were unsuccessful Thursday.

Birmingham lawyer Victor Kelley said a handful of judges were known to hand down expungements even before the law – almost always in drug court, where defendants typically enter rehab in lieu of jail time.

“It was not something that was looked on with a great deal of favor,” Kelley said.

Kelley said there’s been an “explosion” of expungement cases in his office since the law took effect. He was reluctant to name clients or cite individual cases – for the very same reason that his clients want their records cleared. He said many of his clients were arrested, but cleared, on drunk-driving charges.

McVeigh said he, too, recalled Laird offering expungements before the law passed. He said that because there was no official expungement process before the law passed, he’s not sure all public records would truly be cleared.

McVeigh and Hoyem both noted that even with expungement, staff at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency keeps records on arrests. McVeigh said it’s often reasonable to clear the public record of an arrest.

“In court, we can’t use a prior arrest that’s more than 10 years old,” he said. “If you can’t use it in court, maybe they shouldn’t have to talk about it in a job interview.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.