Twenty-five years ago, Maria's mom kicked her out of the house. Maria was 18 and had just arrived in Miami from Holland a few months earlier. She was also pregnant. "I was in a state of mind where I felt like I didn't have anybody left, like everyone was leaving me," Maria says.
The teenager was staying at a friend's house in 1993 when the friend suggested they go shopping to take her mind off everything. "We went to a store, and I noticed that she started to take clothes and put the clothes in a bag. It was a bag from the store, so I asked her if she was going to pay for it and she said yes," Maria recalls. "But then I noticed her put something inside her clothes, and I told her she shouldn't be doing that and walked away."
Outside the store, Maria turned back to look at her friend. That's when she saw two police officers following her. The cops called to Maria and said she was in trouble too, although she had not stolen anything.
"They said somebody had to pay for it, and she's 17 and you're 18, so it's going to be you," Maria says.
The charge was eventually dropped, but not before Maria spent 15 days in jail. Yet even now, the 25-year-old grand-theft charge (the clothes amounted to $350) haunts the married mother of six.
"Every time I apply for anything — a job, a house — they find it. They want me to write a whole letter explaining it. That was one of the worst times of my life — I thought that person was my friend. It is really painful to think about, and every time this happens, it brings it up all over again," Maria says. "It is like a ghost behind me all the time."
Tens of thousands of Floridians like Maria live with an old arrest that makes it more difficult to find housing or employment. Since state law does not require records to be sealed if charges don't result in a conviction, old cases like Maria's still turn up in background checks decades later. Last year, Florida legislators considered changing the law to match states such as New York and Missouri, where records are automatically cleared when a defendant beats the charges, but that change failed in Tallahassee.
For people like Maria, there's only one other option: a $117 petition process that involves sending notarized records approved by the State Attorney's Office to Tallahassee. Every month, the Community Outreach Division of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office holds events where residents can get help sealing or expunging old cases from their records. In the past five years, 4,284 people have had records sealed or expunged through these events, according to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office.
At the most recent event, which took place July 26 in Cutler Bay, Maria was among dozens asking for the change. After running her information, law enforcement officials found she was eligible to get her records expunged.
"I'm so happy," Maria says. "This is a great thing that they're doing here."
Floridians don't have to attend events like these to request old records be sealed, but if they don't do so in person, they must have paperwork notarized and approved by the State Attorney's Office and then submitted to state officials. The process is so tricky to navigate that private attorneys charge clients up to $5,000 to do the work, according to Rundle's office.
The record-sealing events in Miami date to 1998, when Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez began organizing them. In 2004, the State Attorney's Office started doing the same. Now the events also include volunteers from the Public Defender's Office who provide help to people who show up but might not be eligible to get their records closed, along with staff from Transition Inc., a Miami-based job-placement service for ex-offenders.
Last week, 87 people gathered paperwork to close out their records. But not everyone who shows up is actually eligible. Those convicted of crimes can't seal their records under Florida law. Even if prosecutors withhold adjudication for some serious offenses, the records must remain open.
A little more than half the people who attend the events are eligible. The rest are seeking help with something they have no way of removing under current Florida law.
William Gonzalez attended the event in Cutler Bay looking for help with closing his cases, but the volunteers told him there was no way to do so because he'd been convicted on drug charges in 1990. He was visibly upset by the news. Gonzalez has tried everything to get his convictions removed, even meeting with the commissioner of his district, Joe Martinez, and enlisting the help of a retired police officer who advocated on his behalf, but nothing has worked.
"What do I have to do? I spent 14 years in jail and eight years on probation," Gonzalez says. "I already paid my time. I fell in with the wrong people. I was a bodyguard for some people who were selling drugs. I never got in trouble again. What do they want me to do? I've tried everything. I just want to be able to provide for my family and pay for a place to live." He recently tried to work at a hotel in Miami Beach, but once management ran his social security number, he was denied. He applied for a security license so he could work in security at a bar or hotel but was denied again.
Florida is one of only nine states that do not permit at least some adult conviction records to be closed. And there's another catch: Florida law permits only one case to be sealed or expunged in a lifetime. So if you were arrested and charged with multiple offenses that didn't stick, you can get those sealed together. But if you were arrested and charged on more than one occasion, you must choose the one you most want removed.
In Missouri, two misdemeanor convictions and one felony conviction may be expunged in a lifetime. New Yorkers can seal up to three misdemeanor convictions. New Jersey allows four disorderly-persons offenses to be expunged. Many states place no limits on how many nonconviction records can be closed.
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Still, many of those at the Cutler Bay event said they were grateful for the chance to take one arrest off their record.
Ten years ago, Miami native Ravanna Orefiche worked as a manager at a restaurant. She was on-duty when someone committed a robbery and was threatened to remain quiet and lie to the police about it.
"So I did," Orefiche says. "I was scared." She was then charged with filing a false police report, though prosecutors withheld adjudication on the charge. "Even though they withheld, the charge was still affecting me. I couldn't move up in my job."
This past Thursday, Orefiche obtained everything she needs to close the records and move on with her life. "They are doing a great thing for people who made a mistake once," she says.