Veterans -- they've served our country, but many are now fighting another battle here at home: Clearing a criminal problem from the past that’s still impacting their lives. Now, a local group is giving veterans a fighting chance at a fresh start.
“It’s embarrassing, because I fought for the country, and I'm a good citizen,” says Army veteran Shannon Burt.
Burt has so much happiness in her life, but for the mother and 15-year Army veteran, there's a dark cloud from her past hanging over her. “There was a warrant for my arrest,” Burt explains.
Nearly a decade ago, she says she wrote a rent check, but stopped payment after she moved out. The former landlord cashed it anyway and Sarasota County charged Burt with fraud for writing a bad check. Two months later, records show the State Attorney decided not to prosecute.
“Eventually, it was dropped, the fraud charge, but I was looking at a felony,” Burt says.
But the case is still a public record, impacting her ability to provide for her family. “At times I didn't get employment because of it,” says Burt.
She's not alone.
“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” says veteran Will Day. He served overseas in the Army as a counselor, but back at home the 66-year-old found himself breaking up a battle between his wife and daughter-in-law.
“She was slapping my wife, and I went over and put my hand out, and her arm when it came up and hit my hand, which hit her in the face, so I was the one who got hauled off to jail,” Day says.
Initially charged with misdemeanor battery, Pinellas County never even filed paperwork on the case. Ten years later, it's still on the disabled vet's record. “It’s important to me, because it's not who I am as a person and it never has been,” Day says.
But wiping the slate clean, getting a criminal record expunged, can cost up to $2,500.
“They deserve a chance to have the record cleared,” says Army veteran Larry Weglarz. He got his own record sealed and saw the need to help others in the Bay area like Burt and Day. He founded the non-profit group, Expunge US Veterans last year.
“Society judges them often on that one incident for the rest of their life,” says Weglarz.
Weglarz digs deeper into a veteran's past. “I start vetting the vet,” Weglarz explains.
They have to be honorably discharged or specially approved by the board, and can't be convicted of a crime in any state. He then taps into the help of local attorneys like Mike Misa, who works on the veterans’ behalf for free.
“Expungement is really kind of the more thorough process that the actual case is removed, that's only for cases that have been dismissed,” says Misa.
The expungement process takes time. Veterans must submit fingerprints and file an application with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for approval.
Then, the State Attorney and judge have to sign off on it.
Right now, Burt and Day are anxiously awaiting word from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“I don't always have to look over my shoulder and worry that someone is going to judge me, something that I never got convicted over,” says Burt.
Once an expungement is approved, it's up to the veteran to notify departments to remove the charge from public record.
While, many local counties have a special court helping veterans deal with PTSD and substance abuse issues, it doesn't remove the charge from their record.