A state House bill addressing felons running for sheriff — loosely known as the Gerald Hege legislation — cleared a second committee step Thursday.
House Bill 863 was recommended by the House Finance committee and sent to Rules and Operations. It would become law when signed by the governor.
As expected, the bipartisan bill does not name Hege, who was sheriff of Davidson County from 1994 until he resigned in 2004. He was not mentioned during the committee discussion.
However, Hege is apparently the only sheriff candidate in recent memory that the bill would affect. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts.
HB863 is at least nine years in the making, a once-unanticipated follow-up to a successful 2010 state constitutional amendment that prohibits felons from running for sheriff.
Bill co-sponsor Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said Thursday that HB863 would end any potential confusion about whether a general statute can supersede the state Constitution.
“This clarifies that a felony expungement does not allow someone to serve as sheriff,” McNeill said.
Hege had his felony convictions expunged in 2018, 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.
"This is an attempt to close a loophole in the law that we're trying to close forever, for anybody," McNeill said.
"Most people are forgiving people for those who have rehabilitated their lives from when they made foolish decisions, likely when they were younger.
"But there's a difference between giving someone a chance, and them running and being elected sheriff."
Expunged convictions count
HB863 would mandate that any candidate for sheriff disclose all felony convictions, including expunged convictions, when filing as a candidate.
The bill 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 of innocence.
County commissioners would be prohibited from appointing an interim sheriff with a felony conviction, including expunged convictions.
HB863 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.
That 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.
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.
The N.C. Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission would be responsible for verifying the candidate disclosure with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, as well as conducting a criminal history records check of potential candidates through the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
The commission would be able to access confidential personal information about potential candidates.
Hege tried to cut a larger-than-life profile with his souped-up “Spider Car,” military-styled office bunker and crying teddy bears painted on the walls of the jail.
Hege was indicted on 15 felony counts related to and including embezzlement, racial profiling, obtaining property by false pretenses, endangering the public and intimidation.
By pleading to two felony counts, Hege avoided a trial and possible time in prison.
Hege’s defeat appeared to have made the bills moot for legislators.
Meanwhile, another bill introduced in 2010 presented voters with a constitutional amendment that expressly forbids criminals from serving as a sheriff. Voters overwhelmingly approved the amendment in November 2010.
The operative phrase in the law that the amendment was based on read that no person is eligible if they’ve been convicted of a felony … “whether or not that person has been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.”
The law signed by Cooper in 2017 allowed felons with no more than one conviction to petition the court to have their record expunged.
When multiple felony convictions occur at one time, the law counted those as one conviction.
Hege went to court and had his convictions expunged.
“I don’t have a record,” Hege said. “It’s like I never had one.”
Hege filed to run for sheriff in February 2018.
In April 2018, the Davidson Board of Elections — evenly split among Democrats and Republicans — voted 3-1 to allow Hege to continue his candidacy following a citizen complaint.
The four board members grappled with the language in the state constitution, which they said seemed conflicting.
At that time, anyone who is seeking to hold a license or certification from the criminal justice Education and Training Standards Commission could be compelled to say whether they’ve had a record expunged, according to the statute.
The statute states an expunction doesn’t mean a license will be suspended or revoked, but the commission has the option.
Sheriffs, however, are not required to hold a license or certification.
In the May 2018 primary, Hege got 3,494 votes, or 16.3% of the vote.
Richie Simmons, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol sergeant, had 11,229 votes, or 52.6%, while Grice came in a distant second place with 4,865 votes, or 22.8%.
Because there was no Democratic sheriff candidate, Simmons was unopposed in the general election.
McNeill said the bill is in part is in response to the Davidson election board's legal dilemma.
"We are hopeful this bill will forever settle this issue for the loophole that the constitutional amendment didn't address," McNeill said.
"How do you prove a candidate is a convicted felon if their record has been expunged. The amendment did not covered that technical possibility, but this bill does."