It’s not often that we see a news story that brings together two separate worlds in South Carolina: college sports and collateral consequences. But thanks to a faulty road-side drug test, bird poop, and a division one football quarterback, these two worlds came clashing together late last month.
One July night in Saluda County
Late at night on July 31, Shai Werts, starting quarterback for the Georgia Southern Eagles, was pulled over for speeding in Saluda County, the neighboring county of his home Clinton, South Carolina.
The officer that pulled over Werts suspected a white substance on the hood of Werts’s car was cocaine, and he ran a road-side drug test on the substance. Werts objected, saying that it was obviously bird poop and that as a college football player, he had too much to lose to do cocaine.
Unfortunately, the test came back positive and Werts was arrested for misdemeanor possession of cocaine. National media picked up the story, with countless social media users making fun of the bird poop excuse.
For many, this is where the story ends: another college quarterback busted for drug possession, only memorable for his dumb excuse.
But this narrative was wrong. The field tests used by the officer are notoriously unreliable. Werts immediately passed a drug test after his arrest and the possession charge was dropped.
What’s in a Criminal Record?
But the story still isn’t over.
Contrary to what many people think, your criminal record is a record of all arrests and prosecutions – not just charges you were convicted of. What’s more, many third-party websites list arrest information on a person whose charges were dismissed. Even though Shai Werts will not go to trial for—let alone be convicted of—cocaine possession, some background checks will still show that he was arrested for that offense.
To get those charges removed from these flakey websites, he would have to get his RAP sheet from South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and submit it to the 3rd party company, often times in addition to a signed order for the destruction of records, before the website takes it down.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 9 in 10 employers, 3 in 5 colleges, and 4 in 5 landlords use background checks. This means that despite the fact that Werts didn’t actually possess or do cocaine, future employers or landlords may see his arrest, judge him as a risk, and turn him down, without further thought.
Luckily for Werts, all of the details of this incident would also appear in a quick google search and a potential employer would likely see that what happened was a misunderstanding and bad luck. Even more fortunate for him, when googling his name, you’re more likely to find his highlight clips or news articles about this absurd situation than you are to find a mug shot or a criminal charge without context.
The Consequences of Bad Luck
The problem is, not everyone is a college football quarterback. Not everyone is famous enough to create their own press that will cast reasonable doubt on shady background check websites and google searches. Many people with arrest records have mugshots and arrests posted readily available online, regardless of the verdict of their trial. These questionable records are still held against them when applying for housing, employment, and educational financial aid.
In many ways, Werts’s situation highlights the flaws in the system. By complying with officers, he did everything he could from keeping the situation from getting worse. What’s more, the officers didn’t create a flawed drug testing kit or establish the policy of using it in the field. They followed procedure. If the field test came back negative for cocaine, this wouldn’t be a news story at all. Like countless other Americans, Werts would have just gotten a speeding ticket and move on with his life.
The point is, both Werts and the officer did mostly everything right in this situation, but an innocent person was still charged with a crime they were innocent of. Because of the way the current background check system is structured, that innocent person could be denied future opportunities. As the current system exists, it takes a lot of work to clear these records, if they can be cleared at all.
Expungement Laws Are Essential
At South Carolina Appleseed, we work on collateral consequences issues because we believe people shouldn’t be punished further than what they are criminally sentenced. Sometimes people are charged and convicted of a crime because they are guilty; sometimes they are charged when they are innocent.
In both situations, a person’s criminal record follows them long after they’ve repaid their debt to society. Thanks to flakey background checks and insufficient expungement laws, many are excluded from opportunities in housing, education, and employment, which can lead to recidivism and a poverty trap.
What happened to Shai Werts was bad luck. Thankfully his innocence, good behavior, and prowess on the football field will likely prevent this arrest from denying him future opportunities. Not everyone is so lucky. To protect the less fortunate, we must keep fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system, including greater expungement opportunities for those with a criminal record.
Photo Credit: Richard Shiro/Associated Press