By Ryan Autullo
Thanks to a free service from University of Texas law students that helps people expunge their criminal records, two of the worst days in Wayne Johnson’s drug-riddled life might as well have never happened.
Johnson recalls Feb. 2, 2014, playing out like a movie scene. A dozen or so federal agents wearing vests stormed into his Central Austin home, the culmination of a multiyear investigation into prescription drug fraud. He had been trading methamphetamine to a physician for narcotic prescriptions and then selling the prescription drugs for a profit.
Out of jail on bond, Johnson was arrested again less than two weeks later, this time near Zilker Park where he was smoking meth.
“I was high as a kite,” he said.
He’s now clean and so too is the portion of his record that would have included documentation of both arrests. On background applications, Johnson can reply legally that he has no arrests related to the two incidents.
Such is the impact of the Expunction Project, a student-run and attorney-supervised clinic at UT that every year helps 100 people like Johnson restore their reputations so they can land employment, housing and other opportunities that otherwise would be hindered by the presence of a criminal history.
“Knowing I’d get a felony expunged was kind of cool,” said Johnson, who also erased two old misdemeanor theft charges.
The service celebrates its fourth year this month, with intake clinics set for Sept. 19 and Sept. 26 at the Travis County Law Library, 314 W. 11th St. The preferred way to register is via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is no cost, saving clients $300 or more.
Who is eligible for an expunction? The answer in many cases is complicated and should be addressed by the four local defense attorneys who volunteer with the project. But generally it includes anyone with an arrest that the authorities didn’t pursue in court, a criminal charge that was dismissed and certain misdemeanor offenses committed as a juvenile.
Felony convictions cannot be expunged.
Driving while intoxicated? Well, that’s tricky. Those charges typically are attached to a traffic citation so even if the DWI is dismissed — because, perhaps, there’s no evidence the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs — it cannot be expunged because the charge is tied to something like speeding or running a red light.
Lawmakers in 2015 passed a bipartisan bill to broaden access to expungement, including for DWIs. But Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill.
Had Abbott responded differently, according to local attorney Chris Perri, who volunteers at the clinic and is running for congressional District 21 in the 2018 Democratic primary, “we might be able to expunge twice as many arrests.”
In recognition for his work with the clinic, Perri earned the 2016 Texas Law Fellowships’ Excellence in Public Interest Award, as did founding partner, Paul Quinzi, who is running for judge of Travis County Court No. 3.
The clinic is the brainchild of UT Law School graduate Meg Clifford, who now develops pro bono projects at the school. Originally aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds who were trying to get back on their feet, it soon expanded to anyone who qualifies for expungement. Fifteen clients showed up for the first round in 2014. Now, through word of mouth and other avenues, participation has grown to about 75 clients per semester, with roughly 50 meeting requirements for expungement.
Law students assist in preparing paperwork.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Quinzi said.
Past clients include a 39-year-old woman who was charged with making a false police report. She asked authorities to find her 17-year-old who had taken a flight to Florida to meet a stranger. Problem is, the son was 19, by law an adult who was free to do what he wanted.
“I wasn’t trying to be misleading,” the woman said. “In a panic, I told her the wrong age.”
With the charge lingering for two years, the woman says she applied for perhaps 30 jobs with no success. The charge was dropped by the court after she completed deferred prosecution and was expunged in December 2016. She since has obtained a specialized work certification and is employed.
The woman, relieved that the arrest is no longer dogging her, asked that the American-Statesman not print her name.
Sense of worth
Johnson, the man with the expunged drug charges, had no such qualms about seeing his name in print.
“The field that I work in, it’s almost a requirement you have a sketchy record,” he cracked.
Off drugs since Feb. 12, 2014, he assists others with substance abuse issues at Communities for Recovery, a nonprofit at the Austin State Hospital. Also, Johnson, 43, and his girlfriend run a Northeast Austin women’s home, Serenity Found Sober Living.
He’s taking classes in social work at Austin Community College and aims to gets his master’s degree at UT.
Two felony drug convictions from years ago cannot be expunged, but he’s grateful for the two that were removed.
“The expungement restored a sense of self-worth that I lost a long time ago,” Johnson said.