Not many people would find their faces lighting up and their tone of voice turning towards excitement when talking about their most recent legal experience. But Miguel Hernandez is a different story. I sat down with Miguel to hear about his encounter with Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia at their first ever expungement clinic and I heard how God used a few interactions with our clinic attorneys to encourage, bless, and lift up this brother of ours in Christ.
On April 14th, 11 volunteer attorneys, paralegals, and law students came together at our North Philadelphia clinic site to screen potential expungement cases. After 3 hours of training, and plenty of snacks and caffeine, our volunteers – many new to CLCP – sat down in pairs to greet, counsel, and review the criminal records of the 15+ clients who came that day.
Expungement is the legal term for clearing criminal charges from someone’s record. With an expunged record, many people face greater chances of employment and shed the stigma of past mistakes or arrests that did not result in a conviction.
Up to this point, Miguel’s experiences with lawyers had all been negative. After a run-in four years ago that ended in his good friend being stabbed, Miguel found himself in court, under the representation of a seemingly apathetic attorney. “The lawyer did not even meet me once. He pretty much didn’t want to fight my case. I felt hopeless!” Miguel says, “with tears in my eyes, I pled guilty. I was angry. I felt like there was nothing I could do.”
Contrast this with Miguel’s visit to Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia four months ago, where he met two of our contract attorneys, Daniel Popkave and Daniel Colbert. With bright eyes, Miguel recalls how, “meeting with both Daniels… was an amazing experience.” After reviewing Miguel’s record and determining his eligibility for expungement, Miguel left our clinic filled with hope in a second chance. At the close of their session, both Daniels prayed for him. Miguel recounted how much that touched him. “They seemed so excited and motivated to help me!”
Since his sentencing 3 years ago, Miguel had served three years of probation. In this time, his life changed dramatically, he became a Christian and an active member in his North Philadelphia church. He shared with me how the person reflected in his record was not who he was in reality. The charges on his record weighed him down.
The final stage in the expungement process requires an attorney to appear in court on the client’s behalf, and the judge must grant the expungement after any counter-arguments are made. Early in the morning, on the day of his hearing, Miguel came to court to meet with Daniel Colbert. He was both nervous and excited. This court appearance represented an opportunity for a second chance, but it also carried the possibility of great disappointment.
As they waited for the judge, Daniel suggested they go out to the lobby and pray. “Praying outside the courtroom was an awesome feeling!” Miguel told me. Together, with three other CLCP attorneys and their clients, they prayed for the Lord’s favor in court that day – and the Lord answered their prayers.
As each client’s name was called, the judge granted their expungement requests. Miguel recalls, “when the judge said that, I wanted to cry! I saw myself almost jumping and hitting the ceiling!” Miguel exudes gratitude when he thinks of the significance of his cleaned record. “I had already moved on in life. Now my record reflects that.”
Due to the success of the inaugural expungement clinic, CLCP will be holding them quarterly in their North Philadelphia clinic.
Miguel hopes that many others will take advantage of the services that CLCP has to offer. “Our legal system can feel so tangled. It’s great to see Christians who want to help change things and lead by example. I would encourage people who don’t believe in justice to give themselves a second chance and come to CLCP.”