After five decades the government finally recognizes something Barbara Ann Finn has long known: she is not a criminal.
“I’m just ecstatic about it,” the 74-year-old great-grandmother told NBC10.
Finn has been fighting for a year to have a shoplifting arrest removed from her record. The ghost record was linked to an incident in 1963. The woman was shopping with friends in a West Philadelphia store, when another woman she was with was nabbed for stealing. The friend got in trouble, but Finn, having done nothing wrong, didn’t. Or so she thought.
She moved to Maryland in 1985, married, was a foster parent and spent 40 years working accounts receivable in the Maryland Department of Treasury. Then last year, as a retiree living along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she was denied a part-time position in a school cafeteria after a routine check with the FBI’s criminal record database listed her supposed past arrest.
“I’ve gone all these years without all of this and then for just a little job this happened,” Finn said adding that she was hoping to work for some supplemental income. “I was shocked.”
For her past jobs and time as a foster mother, Finn said she’d undergone various background checks without issue.
Embarrassed and confused by the discovery, Finn called state police in Maryland and Pennsylvania, the FBI and prosecutors in Philadelphia. No one could help. She was eventually told to seek assistance from the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), which runs the Criminal Record Expungement Project. The program holds neighborhood workshops to help identify those who could have arrests or charges removed from their criminal record, which also removes barriers for employment among other issues.
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“The impact that she felt and the embarrassment in her community that she felt after being denied a job because of this was profound. We had to really persuade her to share her story,” said Michael Lee, PLSE’s executive director and the attorney who represented Finn.
Lee found the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI’s criminal record database had listed Finn as an alias on the arrest record of the other woman she was with that day in 1963.
“We still don’t know where the breakdown occurred, but it was odd because it was under her married name. She didn’t get married until the 1980s,” Lee said. “The record also had a different date of birth, a different height.”
When the attorney tried to find the original arrest documentation from 1963, neither Philadelphia Police nor the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office could locate the record. Lee then filed a petition to have the arrest expunged — a necessary move to correct the FBI database.
“I’ve never seen a case where someone who has no contact with the court system is so connected with a person who is,” Lee said. The Philadelphia Court Clerk had to create a case file so that the proceedings could be entered into the record since there was no case history.
Finn’s prayers were finally answered on Monday when Common Pleas Judge Joan A. Brown granted the request to expunge.
“I just appreciate the help that [PLSE] gave me. I’m just so happy that they got it expunged,” the woman said.
The Criminal Record Expungement Project has held 45 mobile legal clinics in neighborhoods around Philadelphia since 2010 and to date the organization’s members have filed more than 4,000 expungement petitions, according to Lee. The attorney said removing old or irrelevant information from someone’s history can have a profound impact in helping them find a decent job and move past any stigma from an issue in their past.
As for Finn, the court order requires state police to amend their record and that will in turn be sent to the FBI. But that’s only half the battle.
Lee said he’s not sure how quickly that information will be disseminated among third-party background checking companies which consumers and employers pay to get quick criminal history checks.
“Over the past year, I didn’t even apply for any other jobs because I was worried about it,” Finn said. “I just hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”