DORAVILLE, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - You’re arrested for a crime you did not commit. The charges are soon dropped.
You'd think that arrest would automatically disappear from any future background checks, like for jobs or housing. After all, it's only fair. You've done nothing wrong.
Yet one couple has realized that the system innocent Georgians face is anything but fair.
“For it to still be on our records, when I think about it I get upset," admitted Simon Cofie.
It’s the second summer the FOX 5 I-Team has visited the Doraville home of Simon Cofie and Clarice Doku. The first time was to talk about their arrest for being something they could not imagine: drug traffickers.
Last year we aired a series of stories about people wrongly arrested on drug charges because a roadside test kit produced a false positive reading. Doraville police had pulled over Simon and Clarice on their way home from a dinner date. Simon had recently bought a plastic license plate cover from an auto supply store as part of his effort to keep his new car clean. The immigrant from Ghana didn't know that putting a clear cover over a license plate was against Georgia law because it can interfere with automatic license plate readers.
Doraville police pulled him for that and then began searching their car because the officer thought he smelled marijuana. He didn't find any pot, but he did discover a baggie of unmarked tablets in their glove compartment. A roadside field test convinced officers the tablets were actually ecstasy, a psychedelic drug. Clarice tried to tell them it was folic acid, a common vitamin taken to prevent birth defects. The couple had tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant.
But police believed the test over them. The couple would spend the next two weeks without bond in the DeKalb County jail. Clarice lost her job. Simon missed his swearing-in ceremony to become an American citizen.
“I wanted people to know about what was going on," Simon explained. "We were wrongly or wrongfully arrested for something that we had no clue of.”
He got his wish. We eventually tracked down other Georgians wrongly jailed based on the false positive readings of these field tests. Our investigation discovered in just one year, the tests got it wrong 145 times in cases all across our state.
Our findings prompted law enforcement agencies here and around the world to ditch the tests or require additional evidence before making an arrest.
And the investigation was honored with a Peabody Award, considered the highest prize in broadcast journalism.
“We’re hopeful that at least something could be done," Simon continued. "And with your help and the story that you did – wonderful story – it brought some changes.”
But one change has not yet happened. Last year when we ran a background check on Clarice, that felony drug trafficking arrest popped up, even though the charges had been dropped.
So this summer we ran her name again. Sure enough, that felony drug trafficking charge was still there.
"It’s not fair at all," argued Clarice. "Something I didn’t do and it’s still showing. It’s not fair at all.”
Georgia law requires arrest records be automatically expunged from the official criminal database known as GCIC, restricted from public view if those charges are not prosecuted. The DeKalb District Attorney's office said it reported the charges dropped last summer. Interestingly, Simon’s arrest does not show up on the background check we ran on him.
But it’s clearly still a problem for Clarice. She says luckily a friend vouched for her when she applied for an IT job last year.
“The only thing that helped me is I’m a hard-working person and they all know me and I showed them the story that we did," she explained. "So they knew. But I still had to explain myself why is this still showing up if you say it’s dismissed?”
The Georgia Justice Project has offered to help. Part of the non-profit's work is to help clear criminal records for people wrongly accused.
"These folks did absolutely nothing wrong," agreed Brenda Smeeton, the Georgia Justice Project's legal director. "These were wrongful arrests and yet the burden is on them."
She said instead of using GCIC data, some private background companies often pull directly from jail records or clerk's files, databases that are not covered by that automatic restriction law. You've got to make that request yourself to have the records sealed.
"It's really hard to pull that information back from all the sources once it's out in the world," Smeeton explained.
The Georgia Justice Project is helping Clarice with that paperwork.
It's been a frustrating year indeed for this couple. And yet... Remember that folic acid the roadside test did not recognize, the vitamins Clarice was taking as part of her efforts to get pregnant?
A year later, Simon and Clarice are now parents. They named their daughter Mandy Nhyira. It means Strong Blessing.
“She’s strong, loving," Clarice said smiling. "She’s everything. She made me forget all the pain I go through. God has been good to us."
Better than the previous year?
"Far better than the previous year.”
For more information on how to clear a criminal record, contact the Georgia Justice Project.