A bill that would bar felons, including those who have had their records expunged, from running for sheriff has cleared the state House.
House Bill 312 — the so-called Gerald Hege bill after the controversial former Davidson County sheriff — was approved by a 118-1 vote Thursday shortly after clearing the House Rules and Operations committee by voice vote.
House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has accelerated House floor votes this week with the legislature set for a weeklong break next week.
House Bill 312 and companion Senate Bill 306 — both Republican sponsored — closely mirror House Bill 863 from the 2019 session. SB306 has not been acted upon in committee.
The bills do not name Hege, the Republican sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 until he resigned in 2004. His name was not cited during committee debate.
However, Hege is apparently the only sheriff candidate in recent memory whom the bills would affect. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts. His convictions, though, were later expunged, meaning the convictions were removed from his record.
The 2021 House version of the bill avoided the outcome of the 2019 version.
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.
By comparison, there was just one legislator who spoke briefly on those issues before agreeing to support the bill.
Like HB863, the 2021 session 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.
An amendment was submitted, but failed, that would have allowed for the expungement exemption.
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.