How your protest arrest can become a lifelong criminal record -- and what to do about it

How your protest arrest can become a lifelong criminal record -- and what to do about it

An estimated 23 million people across the United States have hit the streets for protests reacting to the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the spring of 2020.

The response joined a chorus of similar outcry that followed previous high-profile shootings of people of color by law enforcement. But none such protest reactions have been more sustained and widespread than what the nation witnessed after the night of May 25.

Thousands of people have since been arrested by police during Black Lives Matter protests. An early attempt at tallying arrests resulted in a total of about 7,600 during the months of May and June. A deeper analysis later by the Associated Press found that over 10,000 arrests had actually occurred during just the first 10 days of the protests.

When protest becomes terrorism

Many of these protest arrests were for minor violations, such as failure to disperse following a police order or violating curfew restrictions implemented by the authorities to contain damage caused during the protests. Other protestors faced charges for looting and burglary.

Demonstrators frequently said they felt compelled to participate in the protests and even be arrested if necessary to honor the legacy of past civil rights leaders in the United States, like Martin Luther King and John Lewis.

A startling number of protestors were charged with much more serious crimes that could result in far worse consequences.

Authorities in Oklahoma City charged three protestors with terrorism, one with assaulting a police officer, and five more for inciting riots during protests in late May. Advocacy organizations such as the ACLU and Black Lives Matter were critical of the charges and decried them as “incendiary.”

But a defiant District Attorney David Prater personally made the decision to bring the charges and sounded a defensive tone in response. “These criminals have subverted peaceful protests and impaired the open discussion regarding race in our country. When you act like a terrorist, you will be treated like a terrorist.”

The ACLU Oklahoma countered that the charges were merely political and ignored the message of the protests.

“Property damage costs are minimal compared to the money expended on excessive force and prosecutorial misconduct cases and are inconsequential when compared to the human lives lost at the hands of the Oklahoma City police. Any conversation around such actions diminishes and diverts attention away from the reason thousands are protesting and demonstrating.”

After businesses were damaged in Tulsa during similar protests, multiple arrests occurred and the Oklahoma National Guard was embedded with Tulsa police, during which tear gas was deployed against demonstrators.

Know the facts about your record

Half of states, including Oklahoma, have a process enacted that allows you to expunge your criminal record in certain circumstances, such as when you are acquitted or the charges are dropped. But in Oklahoma and elsewhere, even where the government hasn’t proved its case against, the charges are still discoverable in public court records and are not expunged automatically.

Although the experience for you or others arrested during protests may not have felt like you were participating in riots or committing acts of terrorism, a potential employer may not have that context in the future when he or she is comparing applicants.

A criminal record can affect your ability to apply for student loans, compete effectively for new jobs, obtain adequate housing, or altogether access certain job classifications.

“If a young protestor who was recently arrested applies for a job now or for student loans, their pending criminal case will likely pop up,” wrote in a story about the arrests. “Criminal-history questions also appear in the majority of undergraduate college applications. … Lawyers representing protestors fear many are marching under the mistaken impression that minor cases disappear from criminal records once charges are cleared.”

In fact, an arrest record can be accessible in state and federal court records systems for years or even decades as public documents. Over half of states “require an individual to take often onerous court actions to seal or expunge an arrest record, even if they’ve been acquitted or a charge has been dismissed.” Oklahoma is one such state.

What you can do

If you meet the criteria, you should seek an expungement.

Research shows that people who do seek help in having their records expunged enjoy greater salaries, benefits, and other opportunities and that people with expunged records are less likely to commit new crimes.

We’re here to help

An arrest or conviction is a serious matter that can drastically impact your future, and the process of getting your record expunged in Oklahoma is complicated. Contact us now if you need help. We can answer questions and help you understand if you are eligible for expungement. Our initial evaluation is always free.