A woman who was wrongly identified in a police lineup struggles to reclaim her life

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After Jasmine Violenes was mistakenly picked out of a police lineup and charged with two felonies she did not commit, she lost her home, her car and — most harmful of all — her good name.

As the single mother of two tried to pick up the pieces of her life in Atlanta after the charges were dropped, she found that clearing her record was more of an uphill battle than proving she was not involved in the road-rage incident in Smyrna, Georgia, in 2022.

Violenes joined an untold number of Americans each year who are charged with crimes they did not commit and who struggle to clear dismissed charges from public records and the internet. It’s a predicament that can haunt them when they apply for jobs, loans and other potential opportunities.

The number of people in Violenes’ situation is not tracked or compiled in a database, experts and advocates said, and though the records-clearing process varies by state, most agree the task is burdensome, time-consuming and often expensive.

“They screwed me, took everything from me, and now I’m just left to figure it out, and it’s just not fair,” said Violenes, adding that the hurtful experience has left her with PTSD symptoms.

For the first few weeks after her arrest, she said she felt like a “zombie.” She rarely left bed and had a hard time caring for her sons. She had “constant sweats” from the anxiety and was losing hair and weight, she said.

“My whole life, my identity, everything that made me was ripped away from me. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know what my purpose is,” she said. “I’m dying inside.”

Violenes, 34, had dreamed of becoming a nurse. She was due to start a residency program at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in April 2023, but that January she was arrested and charged with two felonies in connection with a road-rage incident that happened while she was at work in another town. Her vehicle had been placed at the crime scene while her then-boyfriend, Kevin McCoy, was driving it, she said.

Hoping that the mix-up would be quickly resolved, Violenes told program officials about the felony charges. She didn’t want to have any problems with her background check down the line. The hospital pushed back her start date, but because the charges are still showing up on her record, she has not yet been able to start the program, she said.

Grady Hospital did not return multiple phone calls and emails from NBC News.

“It felt like all my sacrifices were all for nothing,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger and great. Landing a residency at Grady was a major accomplishment, and I missed out on that opportunity because the justice system didn’t do its due diligence.”

Her legal troubles began the night of Nov. 2, 2022, when McCoy, who is now her ex-boyfriend, was driving her car and said he came across a road-rage altercation at a busy intersection in Smyrna, just outside Atlanta.

Atlanta resident Derrick Lynn Hill told police he had been driving a silver Toyota Camry when two women in another vehicle began yelling that he had allegedly cut them off, according to a Smyrna Police Department report. The women followed Hill to a restaurant parking lot and, after he left, cornered him at an intersection, according to the report.

Hill told police an unknown, armed man that one of the women had called to the scene planned to shoot him, and the women pulled on Hill’s car door handle, according to the police report.

McCoy was driving Violenes’ black Chevy Equinox after dropping her off at work at an urgent care clinic and arrived at the scene during the commotion, she said. The police report did not identify McCoy by name, but Hill told officers the driver of the Equinox got out of the SUV and also pulled on his car door handle.

McCoy, who was not detained, said in an interview with NBC News that he never pulled on Hill’s door handle. McCoy said he pulled up to the intersection and saw two women who said they wanted someone to call police, alleging a motorist had cut them off. He went to offer aid, but once he saw what was going on, he returned to the vehicle and drove away, he said, adding that authorities never contacted him about the incident.

The next day, Hill filed a police report that included Violenes’ license plate number, and two months later, he picked her out of a photo lineup as one of the alleged assailants, according to the police report. There was no indication in the police report that Hill knew Violenes. Police arrested her in January 2023 as she was returning home from running errands.

Both Hill and the Smyrna Police Department declined to comment.

A grand jury indicted Violenes in June after the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office charged her with two felonies, aggravated assault and false imprisonment, as well as a criminal trespass misdemeanor.

Violenes’ attorney, David J. Koontz, said he provided prosecutors with time stamps showing when she logged on and off from her shift at an Atlanta urgent care clinic, where she worked overnight, but they pressed ahead anyway.

Violenes said she was part of a unit laid off from the urgent care clinic shortly before the charges were filed. And when she began applying for jobs, she found she couldn’t pass criminal background checks. Without an income, she lost her car and her apartment, and she and her boys, ages 13 and 16, had to move in with relatives. Her eldest son began to act out by ditching school, vaping and frequently arguing with her, she said.

Violenes said she feels like she’s a disappointment to her sons.

“I had plans for the boys, I’ve been promising them a different and better life for years,” she said. “I’ve broken my promise, but not on purpose. They don’t believe in me.”

Her case was dismissed by the district attorney’s office in December — almost a year after her arrest — for lack of evidence and because she had proven she had been at work at the time of the crime. Per its policy when charges are dropped, the DA’s office placed a restriction on her criminal history, which makes her record private but does not expunge it. The state of Georgia does not expunge records.

But the charges remained on her public record because the Cobb County Superior Court Clerk’s Office had not yet processed the paperwork, the district attorney’s office said. Clerk Connie Taylor did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

The court clerk’s office is required to enter the restriction into the Georgia Crime Information database within a month after charges are dismissed, said Brenda Smeeton, legal director at the Georgia Justice Project, which helps residents expunge their records for free.

In addition to the restriction, people with dismissed charges who want their records sealed, which would allow only law enforcement authorities to view their criminal histories, must file a court petition to do so, Smeeton said. Hiring a lawyer could cost petitioners several thousand dollars and, although not required, makes the job much easier, she said.

Violenes hasn’t taken this step, she said, because she didn’t know until recently that it was needed to clear her name. She also said she doesn’t know how to file a petition and can’t afford a lawyer to help her.

“I never knew that was an option,” Violenes said.

But those who do may find that parts of their criminal records remain visible to potential employers, if the person conducting the background check has a law enforcement-level security clearance, Smeeton said.

Though the record-clearing process varies by state, people sometimes decide it takes too much effort or money to get started, said Akua Amaning, director of criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy group.

Violenes also learned that her mug shot and the charges filed against her were plastered on crime websites that aggregate public records and that potential employers can easily find.

Getting names and images scrubbed from the internet is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, said Ben Winters, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on privacy and civil liberties.

“It’s a nightmare,” Winters said. “They pull the information and never update because they aren’t incentivized to reduce their web traffic.”

Violenes said the financial strain has sent her into a deep depression and she feels like there’s no way out.

“I have to depend on people and my mom to send me money,” she said. “Every day I’m at a standstill. I’ve lost everything that made me independent.”

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