Through local partnerships, expunction clinics offer students the opportunity to hone their legal skills while giving clients access to needed legal resources.
By Sean Rowe
After years lost to drug abuse, Anthony Darity, of Asheville, N.C., is working hard to turn his life around. Part of that includes overcoming the collateral effects of addiction by cleaning up his criminal record. “I never really realized how many charges I actually had for serious drug offenses,” Darity said.
Through TROSA, a 24-month residential recovery program located in Durham for men and women from across North Carolina, Darity has been able to secure a stable job and get access to health care. Thanks to a recent clinic offered at TROSA’s James St. campus by the Durham Expunction & Restoration (DEAR) Program, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), and Duke Law School, he will also be able to put his past criminal record behind him.
Nearly 40 Duke Law students volunteered to work with licensed attorneys to help TROSA residents determine if they were eligible to expunge one or more criminal records, including both dismissed charges and older nonviolent convictions. The service, which involves assisting clients with navigating confusing legal documents and terminology, was free.
“It’s a good thing, just the fact that you’re helping people out, people with families, people who never thought they would have a chance,” Darity said.
1L John Godfrey Jr. said the clinic was a high point to his first semester of law school. “It was humbling to be trusted by our clients and the supervising attorneys to do meaningful work,” he said. “As I prepare for exams, I feel much more grounded in why I decided to go to law school and what I can do with my degree.”
Criminal records can be a significant barrier to securing housing and employment and pursuing educational opportunities. In North Carolina, dismissed charges and acquittals are permanent public records that can create a negative impression with employers, landlords, and licensing boards that makes it more difficult for people to achieve stability and access economic opportunity.
TROSA resident Samuel Downey of Durham said his criminal record has been a barrier to finding work. Being open about his past often didn’t help.
“I’ve went to jobs and applied and when it gets to the point where it says, ‘Do you have a felony?’ I was always put ‘Yes,’” Downey said. “There are times when I can explain my way through it and there were times where it was like zero tolerance for a felon.”
In preparation for the clinic, students attended a series of three work sessions at the Law School, where they worked with a supervising attorney to review each of the 25 clients’ cases for expunction eligibility and to prepare necessary petitions. Jessica Miller ’24 said she looked forward to meeting with the TROSA residents and sharing some good news.
“It was so rewarding to be able to show the clients their petitions that we had worked to prepare for them, and to help them clear their records and get a fresh start!,” Miller said.
Darity said he was the first in-person client for the student he met with, recalling them as “nervous,” but “confident.” Downey said he came away feeling more informed about his options and more hopeful about his future.
“We had a good conversation,” Downey said. “They really broke it down, what I needed to know as far as letting me know what I could pursue as far as my criminal record.”
1L Caroline Granitur said working in the clinic is in line with her professional aspirations of doing post-conviction pro bono work. “Having this hands-on opportunity to connect with a real person and complete real work to help them expunge past records has allowed my law school experience to go beyond the confines of the classroom and do good for the broader Durham community,” she said.
On hand to supervise students at the clinic were Duke Law Director of Pro Bono D.J. Dore; Jessica Luong T’04, DEAR Supervising Attorney and a former Mecklenburg County assistant public defender; Ali Nininger-Finch, DEAR Staff Attorney; and Rachel Smith ’18, LANC Staff Attorney. DEAR’s Jeremiah Brutus coordinated the clinic.
Dore pointed to the expunction clinic as both a hands-on learning opportunity for students and a chance for them to see how their work can impact a client’s life.
“The TROSA expunction clinic provides the perfect example of experiential learning through meaningful pro bono work because it requires our law students to use a wide range of legal skills, including statutory analysis and application, document drafting, and client counseling,” Dore said. “But what makes this clinic special is knowing how hard these residents have worked to overcome significant substance use disorders. All the clinic’s clients have completed at least 15 months in the program, and I witnessed a few emotional moments when a student was able to inform a client about significant expunction relief. Allowing our students to play a small part in the residents’ recovery is an extremely meaningful experience.”
Darity says he’s looking forward to making a new start with a new foundation. “The future looks bright,” he said, adding some words of encouragement for the students: “Believe in yourself.”