If you were arrested during #FeesMustFall you might have a criminal record

People who were arrested during #FeesMustFall protests may be in for a nasty surprise when applying for jobs or international studies if it turns out charges against them have not been dropped from their records.

A #FeesMustFall student activist, who asked not to be named, was put in an awkward position recently when she secured a job offer, only to find out that she had a criminal record after a routine police clearance check.

She was detained by police after a mass arrest on Wits University campus in February 2016. She told The Daily Vox she had been sitting in a large group on campus when “we were approached by police who said we contravened a court interdict that said we could not be in a group of more than eight”.

About a dozen students were processed at Hillbrow police station and were held in a cell for several hours but were later released. Lawyers told them the charges were dropped.

They were scheduled to go to court the following Monday but on the day, their lawyer told them the prosecutor was refusing to prosecute and the case was being withdrawn. “We were free to go,” she said. According to the activist, they were told that they wouldn’t have a record.

A year and a half later, after applying for a job, she discovered she had a criminal record for being in contravention of a court order. The process to clear her name took two weeks of back and forth with police.

She said the only reason she picked it up because the company she applied to was kind enough to tell her. “How many mass arrests have happened around the country? Many of us might be in the same situation and the only reason I picked it up was because the nature of the company I was working for,” she said.

SAPS spokesperson Vish Naidoo told The Daily Vox this was not the first such case he’d heard of, and that there was also at least one case in Cape Town where a student couldn’t get a job because of charges during #FeesMustFall which were only withdrawn provisionally.

He said a person’s name would be flagged in a police check if they have a charge against them, a case that is pending, or a case that had been provisionally withdrawn. Naidoo said if a case is provisionally withdrawn, it means police are still seeking new information on the matter and the case is still pending.

To check whether you have an outstanding criminal record you need to go to a police station and apply for a police clearance certificate. This costs about R60 and takes four to six weeks. Police take your fingerprints and send it to the criminal record centre for processing.

Naidoo said getting a clearance certificate does not automatically clear your name of any provisional charges. The certificate simply lists any criminal cases you may have been charged with or convicted of.

To get your name cleared of any outstanding charges, you first need to inform the detective in charge of your case that the charges were dropped. The detective will then find the docket and check whether the prosecutor had properly endorsed this. If not, the detective has to approach the prosecutor to sign off on dropping the charges. Once this is done, the detective will complete a form asking the criminal record centre to remove the charges from the system.

Featured image by Yeshiel Panchia