A bill that would bar felons, including those who have had their records expunged, from running for sheriff — the so-called Gerald Hege bill — has been revived for the 2021 session of the N.C. General Assembly.
The bills do not name Hege, the controversial Republican sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 until he resigned in 2004.
However, Hege is apparently the only sheriff candidate in recent memory that the bills would affect. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts.
During House committee and floor debate in 2019, although no one said Hege’s name, lawmakers did talk about a sheriff from Davidson County who was convicted of a felony, but still ran for sheriff after his conviction was expunged.
The bills would mandate that any candidate for sheriff disclose all felony convictions, including expunged convictions, when filing to run for office.
The bills would bar anyone with a felony conviction, even with an expunction, from being an eligible candidate. The legislation allows an exemption for an unconditional pardon based on innocence.
A potential candidate who fails to file the felony disclosure would not be allowed to have their name on the ballot. Any votes for the candidate would not be counted.
County commissioners would be prohibited from appointing an interim sheriff with a felony conviction, including expunged convictions.
The bills would apply to 47 counties, including Alamance, Alleghany, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes and Surry counties in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina.
Those counties were identified because state law requires their commissioners to appoint an interim sheriff based on the recommendation from the previous sheriff’s county party.
Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, and primary sponsor of HB312, and Sen. Danny Britt Jr., R-Roberson, and primary sponsor of SB306, could not be immediately reached for comment Monday on what changes have been made from HB863.
HB312 has been placed on the agenda for the House Judiciary 2 committee meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
In July 2019, after moving quickly through three House committees, HB863 drew considerable debate on the House floor.
There were enough concerns about potential loopholes that a motion to send the bill back to Rules and Operations committee passed by a 62-52 vote, with Democrats and Republicans voicing concerns.
Legislators questioned, among other things, how a juvenile conviction for a felony could affect someone who wants to run for sheriff as an adult.
They also said some misdemeanors committed by teenagers could end in a felony conviction if the youth does not complete community service obligations.
HB863 was not revisited for the rest of the 2019 and 2020 sessions.
McNeill said in 2019 that HB863 would end such confusion.
“This clarifies that a felony expungement does not allow someone to serve as sheriff,” McNeill said. “This is an attempt to close a loophole in the law that we’re trying to close forever, for anybody.”
HB863 was filed to clarify a state constitutional amendment that passed in 2010 that bars felons from running for sheriff. Hege ran for sheriff in 2010, but lost the Republican primary.
In 2018, Hege had his felony convictions expunged, benefiting from a law signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 that was designed to make it easier for felons to resume normal civic life.
Hege then ran for sheriff, losing once again in the primary.
The expungement led to questions about whether Hege was still considered a felon under state law.
During the 2019 House floor debate, Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said his opposition came primarily from concerns that the bill would prevent a teenager or young adult who made a mistake in committing a felony to serve as a sheriff.
“There are a lot of crazy things in North Carolina that are a felony to commit that shouldn’t be,” Jackson said, citing the stealing of pine straw as an example.
Then-Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, expressed concern in 2019 that the bill contains a loophole for youths who are convicted of a felony outside North Carolina. In some states, juvenile criminal records can be sealed, including if their felony conviction was expunged.
“Concerns about the bill seemed to range from legitimate concerns about its technical details to larger objections linked to a provision in the state Constitution,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation. “Supporters say they’re just clarifying that the constitutional amendment means what it says — that no one ever convicted of a felony should be eligible in the future to run for sheriff.
“But it’s not clear that a majority within the state House is willing to extend that principle to criminal expunctions.”