No matter how eager everyone is to see House Bill 863 — loosely known as the “Gerald Hege bill” — to become law, it needs to be done right.
Though the bill moved quickly through three House committees, both Democratic and Republican legislators had enough concerns about potential loopholes that it was sent back to the Rules and Operations Committee last week, as BH Media’s Richard Craver reported.
Better to get all of the kinks worked out now — especially since the bill’s purpose is to resolve previous kinks.
The bill would affect a state constitutional amendment, passed with broad support in 2010, that bars felons from running for sheriff. The constitutional amendment came about in response to an election season during which six candidates who were known felons, including former Davidson County Sheriff Hege, ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in the 2010 primaries.
Hege pleaded guilty in 2004 to two felony counts of obstruction of justice after facing 15 felony counts.
Passing the amendment was all well and good. It prevented unlikely but possible scenarios in which someone who had flagrantly broken the law would be put in charge of enforcing it.
Putting a convicted felon in charge, even one who won an election, could lead to a serious lack of public confidence in law enforcement.
The amendment seemed to have settled the matter, but in 2018, Hege ran again for sheriff. He claimed that his path had been cleared by a new law, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, which allowed felons with no more than one conviction to petition the court to have their records expunged, which he had done.
There was still some doubt as to whether Hege should be allowed to run, but the Davidson County Board of Elections voted 3-1 in his favor.
Hege finished third in the Republican primary — he managed 16.4% of the vote — but the spectre of a Hege victory was enough to lead to HB 863, which would bar anyone with a felony conviction, even with an expungement, from being an eligible candidate.
“This clarifies that a felony expungement does not allow someone to serve as sheriff,” co-sponsor Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said.
HB 863 also mandates that any candidate for sheriff disclose all felony convictions, including expunged convictions, when filing for office. The legislation does allow an exemption for an unconditional pardon of innocence.
But Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, among others, opposed the bill, saying that it might prevent a teenager or young adult who made a mistake in committing a felony from ever serving as a sheriff. He cited minor drug convictions that can turn into a felony if youths don’t fulfill their community-service obligations, or an individual with a youth felony conviction who could go into the U.S. military and serve honorably, but not be able to later run for sheriff.
Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, expressed concern that the bill contains a loophole for youths who are convicted of a felony outside of North Carolina.
These are legitimate concerns that definitely call for a little more work. They should be settled now so that yet another fix isn’t required in the near future.
Hege, a grandstander with a “get tough on crime” persona, was a controversial and somewhat cartoonish figure even before his convictions. He should be flattered to have inspired so much legislative action. It may be his most positive contribution to law enforcement.