A criminal or traffic charge – whether by arrest/arrest warrant, criminal summons, or citation – creates a public record that is viewable by anyone, including friends, family, neighbors, employers, and potential employers.
That record remains public until and unless it is ever expunged. Anyone can pay for a background search through either the court system, or a private database service.
For prominent people, unique crimes, and major crimes, the arrest or charge may generate publicity. That publicity can survive an expungement, and there is no requirement that any news organization take down a news article even if the charge is ultimately dismissed or the person is found not guilty.
The charge is public from the moment it is issued, although for practical matters, it may not become available to the public until a day or two after the incident. Note that unserved warrants are not public. But as soon as they are served, they are public (unless otherwise sealed by the court). A seal only happens in very rare cases and is not a substitute for an expungement.
The court record will indicate that the charge is pending until it is resolved by a voluntary dismissal, guilty verdict or guilty plea, or not guilty result. A case that has been dismissed with leave (VL’d) is still pending. A VL’d case is usually the result of missed court dates.
If you have been entered into a deferral program, in most cases the case will be pending until the final completion date when either you will earn the dismissal (or whatever result was promised) or a guilty result if you fail to abide by the conditions of the agreement.
Expungements May be Available
As I’ve written elsewhere, an expungement may be available to you in North Carolina in one of a couple of circumstances:
- You were under 18 at the time of the offense and were convicted (depending on the kind of crime).
- You were under 21 at the time of the offense, you were convicted, and it was a drinking offense (depending on the kind of drinking offense).
- You were found not guilty of the offense or the case was voluntarily dismissed by the DA (and you did not waive your right to an expungement as a condition of the dismissal).
- You were convicted of an H or I felony or Class 1 through 3 misdemeanor, it is not a registerable sex offense, assault/violence is not an element of the offense, and 15 years have passed since the end of the punishment phase during which you’ve had no new criminal convictions, except waivable traffic offenses.
Note that this area of the law is somewhat technical and complicated and there are many caveats to the four general principles above.
The problem for most people, especially for people with unique names, is that the Web creates all kinds of possibilities for your reputation to be tarnished even if the case is ultimately dismissed. That’s because under North Carolina law, a citation, criminal summons, or arrest is a public record.
Fortunately for most people, misdemeanors and many felonies generally do not make the front page of the N&O or WRAL.
But sometimes they do. And sometimes they hit the pages of The Slammer. This is all unfortunate, and, even though I am a First Amendment absolutist, I wish something could be done about it.
Actually, there are some steps you can take. This advice is not legal advice. If asked on an application or government document whether you have ever been charged with a crime, assuming the charge has not be expunged, you may be required to answer and if you do answer, you should answer honestly or risk additional consequences.
How to Manage Your Reputation
First, I’m often asked whether paying various shady websites to take down your arrest photo is a good idea. I generally believe it is not. In my experience, these websites are not reputable, and so paying them is a recipe for having them remove the photograph from one site only to have it pop up on another site. Because these people are not reputable, it would be very difficult to sue them for doing this.
In fact, by paying, you may be signaling to the website owners that you have money and are the kind of person who will pay to have them remove your photograph, which means they are that much more likely to try to make you pay… again, and again.
Second, there may be services out there to help you “manage” your online reputation. I have heard good things about Reputation.com although I have never used the service myself. These services won’t necessarily remove your photograph or arrest report from the web, but they will generate additional content, new content, that will help push down your name from Google or Bing’s search results.
Third, WRAL’s photographs generally age out. While this is not always true, and if you had a particularly high-profile case there will always be news articles on the website about you (cf. Jason Young or Brad Cooper), if you had a case that generated no abnormal publicity, then your arrest photograph should age out in a few weeks or months.
Fourth, take some solace that while you are keenly aware you were arrested, cited, or given a criminal summons, nearly everyone you meet, except for your immediate family or friends who you told about the incident, will be clueless. Most people do not read the newspaper or The Slammer or read WRAL. And if they do, unless you were on the front page, they are likely to not know.
Fifth, some employers have, as a condition of employment, a requirement that you tell them about any arrest or citation. You should check your employment contract or handbook. If this is the case, you have a decision to make. If you fail to tell the employer, and the employer can fire you or discipline you for failure to report even though it’s possible they would’ve taken no action had you simply reported the incident. However, of course, if you do report, an employer can fire you or discipline you. It’s a Catch-22 problem, with no good solution. Some employers subscribe to monitoring services that send them alerts if employees on a watch list are arrested.
Sixth, there is not much your criminal defense lawyer can do to avoid publicity if arrested. In other words, if you believe you may be arrested, you should hire a criminal defense lawyer quickly. If the investigation or arrest can be avoided, then, obviously, your reputation may be saved.
But once an arrest has occurred, it is likely that WRAL or the News & Observer will find out about the incident.