As Cal Poly students, the vast majority of us have only had limited contact with law enforcement. This typically includes eighth grade D.A.R.E. and a receipt from a speeding ticket about two weeks after getting your driver’s license.
However, there are a small number of us with some sort of significant criminal record. It was reported in 2009 by a background check provider to entities such as employers, institutions and landlords, mybackgroundcheck.com, that one in 29 college students in the U.S. has some sort of criminal history beyond that of a minor traffic violation.
According to the commander of the University Police Department (UPD) Lori Hashim, the UPD does not keep a running tally of how many students have a criminal record, except in the case of convicted sex offenders who by law must register with their local police department.
Yet, if the 2009 report by mybackgroundcheck.com is to be believed and applied to the Cal Poly student population, then roughly 660 current Cal Poly students have a criminal history. According to the same 2009 report, most of these students will have gotten into trouble for either a major traffic violation, such as DUI (60.0 percent), disorderly conduct (9.5 percent) or theft (8.8 percent).
When talking about criminal convictions, it is important to differentiate between infractions (such as minor traffic violations), misdemeanors (disorderly conduct, shoplifting) and felonies (aggravated assault, automobile theft).
In California, most infractions — such as minor traffic violations — will only appear on your driving record for three years or upon successful completion of traffic school. However, conviction of a misdemeanor or felony becomes a part of your “permanent criminal record,” Hashim said.
This record can then be queried by such entities as a police department, or during a background check, through the Department of Justice, acting as a clearinghouse of convictions of criminal acts.
This type of information can be significant to graduating seniors, or those competing for a sought-after internship with a criminal record.
Jane Johnson, program coordinator for Cal Poly’s Career Counseling Services, said that she has noticed a steep uptick in the past five to 10 years of companies doing background checks on new employees.
On a job application, most companies will want to know if you have been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony (and if so, to provide an explanation). On the other hand, some companies will take your word; a growing number are going so far as to complete a professional criminal, driving and credit history check in addition to contacting personal and professional references. This has resulted in the expansion and growth of companies providing this information, such as mybackgroundcheck.com, ChoicePoint and Radaris.
The Cal Poly student with a criminal record — or anyone with a criminal record for that matter — has a couple of options. The first, most time-consuming and expensive, is to get any misdemeanor or felony criminal conviction “expunged” (removed) from your record. Such action might be worth the time and expense if it means getting a desired job out of college.
The process of getting a criminal conviction expunged begins at the same place where you were convicted; this means returning to the courthouse to file your appeal with the court clerk. If you were convicted of a felony (and you are off probation), you will need to get your charge lowered to a misdemeanor. This can be accomplished by filing a “PC17b petition” with the clerk. If you were convicted of a misdemeanor or were successful in getting your felony lowered to a misdemeanor (and again, you are off probation), you will then want to file a “PC1203.3/4 petition” with the clerk.
Of course, unless you’re Erin Brockovich, you’ll want to have a lawyer do most of this work for you. A cursory scan online of lawyers who provide an estimated cost for such services ranges anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for a misdemeanor, and $1,000 to $2,000 for a felony.
If getting your criminal history expunged is not an option due to either money, time or court rejection of your petition, being forthright and honest with your potential employer about your criminal past is your best course of action, Johnson said. In her discussions with employers, a company is much more likely to hire the employee if they address any issues from their past during the interview process, rather than just letting them come up during the screening or background check; this is not an area where surprises are a good thing.
While time is always the easiest way of separating yourself from your deviant past, the ability to point to previous work experience and compiling a list of compelling references and advocates is another strategy. Character witnesses and others who would be willing to talk to the potential employer can be impressive and might be enough to alleviate any fears the potential employer might have.
Erik Hansen is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Policy and the “When I was a Mustang…” columnist