Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Back in 2010, Le’Ann Williams was arrested after being accused of stealing money from her place of work — a fast-food restaurant at the Canal Place shopping center. Williams didn’t have any prior convictions, and the police officer who investigated the missing cash offered to let her go if she paid the money back, Williams said in a recent interview.  

“He said, ‘Listen, I talked to your boss, if you just pay the money back you don’t have to go to jail,’” Williams said. But she knew she hadn’t taken the money, refused to pay, and was arrested and sent to jail. When Williams finally went to trial in 2011 on the charge of theft over $500, it took just half an hour of deliberation for a jury to acquit her.

She was cleared in the eyes of the law. But the arrest remained on her record.

“I explained to several jobs that I wasn’t convicted for a crime, but it shows on my arrest record that I was brought in for felony charges for theft,” Williams told The Lens. “I can’t get a job because they feel like insurance won’t cover something that’s stolen or something.”

So in October, Williams filed for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge to seal the arrest record through an expungement. Her hearing was originally scheduled for January. But there was a problem with the paperwork. She had to wait six more weeks for another hearing.

“For me to have the suffering just have to follow me  — and then I still can’t get the expungement,” she said. “It’s taking time. It’s just stressful.”

Williams, as well as an attorney who worked with her, say the problem was caused by the Orleans Parish Criminal Court Clerk’s Office, which processes expungements, and other paperwork, for the court.

And the attorney, Sarah Whittington of the Justice & Accountability Center, a group that assists people with getting their records expunged, said the incident illustrated broader dysfunction at the Clerk’s Office over the past year. Whittington said she has seen a large number of unusual expungement delays since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the city’s legal system last March.

“To try and distill it down, the issues in that office are — and I don’t want to say it’s a lack of attention to detail — but those are the specific oversights I’m seeing,” Whittington said. “An expungement requires very specific, finite steps to execute and serve. And we’re missing the documentation, the proof.” 

She called the Clerk’s Office ”the largest barrier for many people in Orleans Parish” seeking expungements, and said it is “often the reason for unnecessary and potentially illegal delays.” Whittington said the issues she has encountered recently highlight the need for an automated expungement process, known as “clean slate,” which her organization has been advocating for in the State Legislature.

Asked about Whittington’s concerns about delays since last March, Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell initially told The Lens that suspension in expungement processing lasted just a few weeks after judges ordered the court to close last March. He later acknowledged that it was at least several months: late March through late June. But Morrell disputed that his office caused undue delays once it began accepting them again.

Data that Morrell provided The Lens shows that the office accepted nearly 70 percent fewer expungements between March and December 2020 than the same period in 2019. Monthly numbers for last year continued to be lower than the year before even after Morrell said his office lifted the suspension on expungement filings.

According to Whittington, part of the reason is that Morrell’s office refused to take many expungement filings into the fall, months later than the timeline he claimed in interviews with The Lens.

‘They’re still not moving forward’

According to Whittington, the Clerk’s Office told some people that they weren’t accepting expungement filings until September. On September 23, 2020, she wrote a letter to Morrell saying that her clients were still being told that expungements weren’t being processed.

“Clients seeking expungements are now more vulnerable than ever before as they seek to clear records for access to housing and employment during the pandemic and record levels of unemployment,” Whittington wrote. “We would ask that the court and clerk’s office allow expungements to be properly filed, with payment if necessary, in person at the court at this time with proper PPE and safety protocols in place.”

Morrell wrote her back, saying that the office had begun taking requests again on August 17. When asked about the discrepancy between his email and what the office is now claiming about accepting filings starting June 30, Morrell told The Lens that he must have been mistaken in his email.

Other large parishes, it appears, did not take similar breaks in expungement processing due to the pandemic. A spokesperson for the Clerk of Court in East Baton Rouge, Fred Sliman, said that although there may have been some minor delays caused by the pandemic, there was never a time when their office stopped processing expungements altogether.

“We’ve never stopped processing, because even with the closures we had some key personnel who were working during the closure behind the scenes to keep the filings going that were coming in,” said Fred Sliman said. 

In Jefferson Parish, there was a decline in expungement filings in April and May when the Clerk’s offices were only doing in-person filings by appointment. But by June, expungements were back up to pre-pandemic levels.

But in Orleans Parish, even after June, when the Clerk’s Office says it began accepting expungement filings again, the numbers actually filed were a fraction of what they were the previous year. 

According to data from the Clerk’s Office provided to The Lens in response to a public records request, the number of expungements processed each month dropped dramatically after the court closure. Between March and December of 2019, the Clerk’s Office processed 274 expungement requests. During the same period last year it processed just 85 — a 69 percent decrease. 

In addition, motions to set aside convictions, a necessary initial procedure for some expungements, likewise dropped from 85 between March and December of 2019 to just 31 during the same period last year, a 64 percent decrease. 

In July and August — during which the office said it was again accepting filings — there were only four expungement motions successfully filed. During the same months last year there were 33.  

But Whittington said that decrease in filings does not mean that people were less in need of expungements. In fact, she said, the pandemic had actually “exacerbated the need for expungements for employment seekers” because people attempting to return to work were getting “caught by criminal records that hadn’t previously been an issue.”

She said the decline was more likely due to the fact that the Clerk’s Office was telling people that they were not accepting them — including JAC, who would then pass that information along to their clients.

“The numbers show that the Clerk’s Office just wasn’t meeting their needs,” she said. 

And Whittington said that even once the Clerk’s Office started accepting expungement filings again, the process was still not moving as quickly as it should, with delays in records requests, and procedural mix-ups, such as misplaced documents, causing hearings to get pushed back.

“The frustrating part is now that like these are getting filed, they’re still not moving forward,” she  said.

Morrell said that there are currently “no delays at all” stemming from his office.  

“They’re bitching about something that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Whittington told The Lens the only explanation for the discrepancy in her experience and Morell’s recent denial was that he did not understand what was going on at his own office.

“I don’t think the head knows what the hand is doing at this point,” Whittington said. 

Meanwhile, she said, the continued delays have extended a difficult time for clients seeking expungements, who do “not feel that they can apply for a better paying job, or a new home, and prevents them from advancing their life in that career.”

Records delayed

The process for getting an arrest or conviction expunged can be time consuming even without procedural missteps, and expensive —at $550, Louisiananians pay the highest expungement costs in the country, according to JAC.

In addition, the specific procedure can vary from parish to parish. In order for someone to begin the process in Orleans Parish, Whittington said they first have to file a records request with the Clerk’s Office to get necessary paperwork to fill out an expungement package, which is then filed as a motion for expungement.

“The clerk will only accept a filing if you do a record request form with them,” Whittington said. “And they basically print out all of your paperwork, information that could be pulled only from a background check. It is not statutorily required. But it is their sort of in-house rule to do a records request and get information.”

She said that there were times over the summer when she was able to fax in necessary records requests for expungements to the Clerk’s Office, and they would bring them out to her. 

“But basically, it came to a crashing halt,” she said.“When you called the office, during court reopening, they were restricting your access and telling you you couldn’t come in.”

But now, even as the office is letting people in, the records are not coming back in any sort of timely or consistent way, Whittington said. In normal times she that process would only take up to two weeks at most. Now, she said it can take months. 

“Since the courts reopened, they’ve got pretty limited hours,” she said. “And what we’re running up against right now is that we’re being told that because of social distance restrictions, many staff are furloughed, they may only be working one or two days a week. So our records requests are going to a single individual who may not process them timely because they’re in and out of the office.”

She provided The Lens with several records requests filed in late December 2020 that she said she did not start receiving responses to until February of this year. Morrell did not respond when presented with the records requests, but told The Lens that occasionally records can be delayed when there is difficulty locating them, “it is not a regular problem.”

In a statement, Morrell said that there had been some procedural changes to how records requests are processed by the office, however.

“Prior to the pandemic individuals made their request in-person, which allowed an immediate turn around in receiving documentation to move forward with preparing their expungement paperwork,” Morrell said in a statement. “However, because of the pandemic and to follow guidelines of social distancing, individuals are required to complete a request form.  The requests are forwarded to the appropriate department depending on whether the record is opened or closed, and someone will respond within three business days.” 

But Whittington said that even before the pandemic many people completed a request form, and with older cases they were generally not having their paperwork turned around the same day. In addition, she said that rather than being contacted within three days, she has not been contacted at all until her records are ready to be picked up. 

“Rather than having like any kind of workflow, where like, whatever I did on Monday, somebody would pick up and finish on Tuesday — we are just not getting these responses,” Whittington said. “What should be a potentially two months delay by statutory requirements become four months or longer.”  

And being that the majority of people she works with who are seeking expungements are doing it in order to gain employment, so any delays have real financial consequences. 

“Any delay is basically like — take whatever job that they would have had and multiply it by their monthly salary.” 

Records lost

When Le’Ann Williams filed for expungement last October, she knew she would have to wait two months — as required by state law — so that the Clerk’s Office could send out a notice to law enforcement agencies to inform them of the expungement request and allow them a chance to file any objections. But when it came time for the woman’s hearing, the Clerk’s Office had apparently failed to file proof that the law enforcement agencies had in fact been notified — which they are required to do under state law. 

“When it was time for us, the judge had apologized,” Williams said. “I guess the Clerk’s Office didn’t do what they were supposed to do. And she was caught by surprise and she had pushed it back.” 

The judge concluded that she couldn’t move forward with the hearing without proof that law enforcement had been notified, and decided to reset the hearing. Whittington objected to the delay, but was overruled. The hearing was pushed back another six weeks.

In February, the Clerk’s Office notified the court that Louisiana State Police had no objection to the expungement —apparently the only law enforcement agency that responded — and when Williams had another hearing just last week, the expungement was granted. As of Tuesday, however, a record of her arrest still appeared on Docket Master, an online Criminal District Court database that is accessible to the public. 

Another man Whittington assisted actually had his expungement granted in 2018. But in 2019, he noticed that the docket entry from his conviction — a third offense DWI felony conviction — still appeared online as well. That meant a background check done by an employer could still potentially find evidence of his conviction. (The man requested that his name not be published.)

Then, in March 2020, he was offered a job opportunity that he decided to turn down rather than have the company run a background check. 

“If they ran the background check and saw that DWI, a third offense, felony DWI arrest —the knowledge of that happening is then permanently on my HR record at that corporation for life, basically,” he said. “It was a bummer.”

After having to turn down the opportunity, he started making an effort to have the record removed. 

“I began calling the courthouse, I was calling the Clerk’s Office, leaving voicemails and, you know, eventually all the voicemails were full, they couldn’t accept any messages,” he said. 

For months, the man said he reached out to the Clerk’s Office. He said he was first told by staff that there was only one person who could help him, and they only worked two days a week. But even when he called on those days she wasn’t available.

Finally, when he got in touch with her in July, he says he was informed that the office wasn’t processing expungements. But because he wasn’t seeking an expungement, and only a correction to an issue that should have been resolved over a year prior, she said that if he sent them some paperwork they could try to help him out. 

But one of the pieces of documentation she said the office needed was a signed copy of his expungement — which the Clerk’s Office was supposed to issue to him in the first place, but had not. 

“I explained to her … you’re the person who’s supposed to give me the final signed copy of the expungement,” the man said. “Or like I’m supposed to get that from you, your office. I can’t get it for you when you’re the person I’m supposed to get it from. And then she responded, ‘I can’t access that because your records were destroyed.’”

The woman said she would try and help him out anyway, but he never heard back from her, and attorneys told him that it wasn’t true his records were destroyed — just inaccessible to the public. Eventually, Whittington wrote a demand letter to the office, which led to the record being removed from the website. 

“It should have been done at the beginning of 2019,” the man told The Lens, “and ended up being November of 2020 when I was finally able to get it done.”

Morrell did not respond to a request for comment on the man’s case.

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...