By Annissa Obasi and Karen Wise
Assistant Criminal District Attorneys in Dallas County
Since 2017, the Dallas County Expunction Expo (“Expo”), an annual community outreach project sponsored by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and District Clerk’s Office, has helped almost 1,000 people legally clear their criminal records. As we prepare for our fifth Expo, we are excited about the local collaborations and national partnerships that have developed from this event, as well as the synergy that has extended to similar events through our conversations with prosecutor offices and stakeholders in Collin, Harris, Kaufman, Tarrant, and Travis Counties.
The purpose of our Expo is to help people with eligible Dallas County criminal offenses legally clear their records. As part of this event, we match these individuals with attorneys who volunteer to assist them with preparing and filing the legal documents required to seek an expunction, often at no cost to the Expo participant. In addition to helping people get a fresh start, this event has provided an opportunity to partner with many entities, including local law schools, criminal justice-focused nonprofits, the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, the City of Dallas City Attorney’s Office and Community Courts, area attorneys, and local and national law firms and corporations.
“We are very pleased to host this annual event,” says Dallas County Criminal District Attorney John Creuzot, “because we know that having a criminal record is often an impediment that prevents people from getting a good job, quality housing, or advanced education. It is our hope that the people we help during the Expo are able to put their past behind them and go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives.”
The Expo also serves as a platform to educate the community about our state’s oft-misunderstood expunction law—many people who attended our first Expo believed an expunction was like an exoneration! Per Texas statute, individuals who have offenses on their criminal record may qualify for an expunction if the statute of limitations to prosecute the offense has expired (subject to a few exceptions) and:
1) they were arrested but a charge was never filed or was no-billed by the grand jury;
2) they have a criminal charge that was dismissed without any type of community supervision or probation prior to dismissal, except for Class C offenses;
3) they were acquitted on the charge by a judge or jury (usually by a finding of not guilty), or appellate court; or
4) they were convicted of a crime but later pardoned by the Governor of Texas or the President of the United States.
An offense is not eligible for an expunction if:
1) the case is still pending;
2) the individual was convicted in the case s/he wants expunged, even if s/he just paid a fine (convictions on other cases do not prevent expunction, unless they are from the same arrest);
3) the individual was placed on probation, community supervision, or deferred adjudication for any felony or Class A or B misdemeanor s/he wants expunged, even if the case was later dismissed (Class C deferred adjudication is the only exception); or
4) the individual was convicted or received any kind of probation on another felony offense arising from the same arrest.
The Dallas County Expunction Expo consists of three parts: the pre-screening period, pre-qualification clinic, and graduation ceremony.
During the pre-screening period, individuals seeking an expunction are sent to a page on the District Clerk’s website containing information about expunctions and the Expo. People who believe they qualify for an expunction can provide information about their criminal history via a Participant Information Form (PIF) accessible by a link on the page. (Prior to the pandemic, paper forms were available at various locations throughout Dallas County.) These forms are delivered to attorneys in our office’s Expunction Division, who review them.
To help as many people as possible during the Expo, our Expunction Division approves any offense eligible for expunction in which the statute of limitations for the offense will run by December 31 of the following year. On average, our Expunction Division has identified eligible offenses on approximately 50 percent of the PIFs they review; generally, half of those who submit PIFs have offenses that do not qualify for expunction. Last year, nearly 80 percent of those who submitted a PIF were members of communities traditionally over-represented in the criminal justice system, including black, indigenous, and other people of color.
Based on anecdotal observations of these requests, we believe a significant number of those offenses that are ineligible for expunction may qualify for non-disclosure; however, our event does not currently include non-disclosure assistance. In response to this and in keeping with his criminal justice system reform efforts, DA Creuzot formed a Non-Disclosure Division in our office in August 2020. This division, which functions like the Expunction Division, now channels non-disclosure filings to a group of attorneys with subject-matter expertise in this area. Future plans for this new division include either partnering with the Expunction Expo to include non-disclosures or hosting a separate, dedicated event to assist those with offenses potentially eligible for non-disclosure.
If a person’s case appears to merit expunction based on the pre-screening procedure, he or she is invited to participate in the next part of the Expo: the pre-qualification clinic (PQC). Those who attend are assigned a volunteer attorney who meets with them to review their record. If the attorney determines a client’s offense qualifies for an expunction, the attorney completes and files expunction pleadings.
Because prosecutors from our office are unable to serve as volunteer attorneys (see Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 2.08), we initially reached out to criminal justice clinic contacts at local law schools, criminal defense attorney associations, and the private bar in planning the Expo. To ensure that Expo participants receive the best possible representation, the event’s schedule includes continuing legal education (CLE) training conducted by Expunction Division Chief Karen Wise, one of the co-authors of this article. Over the years, the CLE training, which occurs about a month before the PQC and is customized for our volunteer attorneys, has helped us recruit more civil attorneys, many of whom do not regularly file expunctions or are completely unfamiliar with this area of law but who are searching for pro bono opportunities. In fact, many of our volunteers are civil attorneys who have never filed an expunction prior to the Expo. The training not only covers current expunction law but also includes tips about the practical aspects of filing expunction petitions, such as how to correctly complete the forms and how to find public records that provide the information required for the filings.
Participation from the criminal defense bar has also grown. In 2019, the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, under the leadership of Chief Public Defender Lynn Pride Richardson, became an Expo partner, and 20 assistant public defenders volunteered to represent Expo clients. Many of these assistant PDs have shared how gratifying it is to help clients who generously express appreciation for their legal assistance.
In 2020, the Expunction Division established a dedicated telephone line, affectionately known as the Bat Phone, as additional support for the volunteer attorneys. Volunteers are invited to call anytime they have questions. This phone is monitored every workday from the previous training through the filing of PIFs and up until Expo Graduation Day. (More on graduation in a bit.)
The PQC was held in person the first three years. Year four found us in the midst of the pandemic. Fortunately, the increased access and use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams allowed us to continue with the Expo while keeping everyone safe. An unexpected benefit was that attorneys from other parts of the country whose firms had Dallas offices volunteered for the virtual pre-qualification clinic and were able to attend the virtual graduation ceremony.
Another silver lining of the COVID cloud was the experience we gained in transitioning the Expo from an in-person to a virtual event. We were able and happy to share that experience with members of the legal community in neighboring Tarrant County, where an in-person expunction and non-disclosure clinic has been held for over 15 years.
The Expo culminates in a graduation-style ceremony where the people whose expunctions are being granted are acknowledged, if they wish, and celebrated. The graduation ceremony also provides an opportunity to thank the many people and organizations that help make the Expo a success. For year five of our Expo, we are planning a virtual PQC and an in-person graduation ceremony.
Lots of participation
As an Expo co-facilitator, the Dallas County District Clerk’s Office plays an essential role. District Clerk Felicia Pitre and her staff prioritize Expo expunction petitions. Absent this expediting, it would be impossible to conduct the Expo within the designated timeframe. Additionally, Ms. Pitre has provided pivotal guidance regarding the use of Affidavits of Inability to Pay Costs, specifically Rules 145 and 202 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. Armed with this information, we may effectively assist people who would otherwise be unable to pay the filing fees and court costs for an expunction.
Through this event, we have developed partnerships with Legal Aid of Northwest Texas (LANWT), the University of North Texas (UNT) Dallas School of Law, and the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Dedman College of Law, which have third-year law students assist Expo clients during the PQC under the supervision of a licensed attorney. In addition to attorneys from the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, who graciously volunteer for the Expo, the Dallas Bar Association, J.L. Turner Legal Association, and Christian Legal Society are among the organizations whose members assist people pro bono with clearing their criminal records. Our law firm partners include Akin Gump, Jones Day, Katten Muchin, Locke Lord, Perkins Coie, and the Cochran Firm. Corporate partners include general counsel from American Airlines and Toyota. Last year, we were delighted to have over 100 attorneys and law students participate in the Expo.
The Dallas City Attorney’s Office and Community Courts have partnered with the Expo since its beginning to assist citizens with clearing city violations, as well as identifying participants with Class C offenses that may be eligible for expunction.
Our Expo partners also include the Texas Offender Reentry Initiative (TORI) and Unlocking Doors, two Dallas-area criminal justice-focused nonprofit organizations.
For smaller counties
Admittedly, most district and county attorney offices do not have the volume of expunction filings, nor the personnel or community resources of Dallas County. However, we believe a record-clearing event is feasible in a county of any size. Smaller counties might try conducting a simple expunction law community education campaign, hosting an expunction-law CLE for local attorneys, creating some type of pre-screening event or online process, or even partnering with the local bar or law school clinic as an attorney referral source for those seeking expunctions. We know firsthand that whatever efforts are made to help people legally clear their criminal records will result in an abundance of goodwill for all involved.