Having a criminal record can create difficulties if you are trying to get your life back together. If you are looking for work or a place to live, job or rental applications may ask you to disclose whether you’ve been convicted of a criminal offense.

In some cases, they may even ask whether you’ve been charged, regardless of whether the charge ended in a conviction. However, in some cases you may be able to get an arrest or conviction cleared, or “expunged,” from your record.

There are limits to expungement — generally, misdemeanorsDUI charges, and minor crimes can be expunged after a certain period of time after a conviction. Expungement can also be available in cases where:

  • The defendant was arrested, but not convicted;
  • The defendant was unlawfully arrested;
  • The defendant has consistently exhibited good behavior since the conviction; and
  • A minor has reached the age of majority (usually 18 years old).

Usually you need to wait for at least five years before applying for expungement of a conviction. Additionally, if you were convicted of a crime as a juvenile, you can apply for expungement of your juvenile convictions once you have turned 18.

Generally, felony charges are not eligible for expungement, especially felonies that involve sexual crimes.

What are the Steps You Should Take to Clear a Criminal Record?

Generally, having criminal charges expunged requires that you file specific paperwork with the court. It is not an automatic process, and each state has a specific method to follow when it comes to removing charges from your record.

In most states, you will need to file a motion with the court to request your record be expunged. Once the motion has been filed, the court will investigate your criminal background to determine whether you qualify for expungement.

Most of the time, there is a hearing to determine eligibility for expungement. Often you don’t have to be present for the hearing in order to have your record expunged (although you may want to attend for your own benefit). In some instances, you may be summoned to court, which means that the court requires you to make an appearance. If your presence is required by the court, you may want to contact a criminal lawyer to appear with you at the hearing.

In some states, juvenile records are automatically sealed once the minor turns 18 years old. However, this does not apply in all states, and could depend on the types of crimes on the juvenile’s record, as well.

After the criminal records have been expunged, an arrest or criminal conviction does not need to be disclosed by the defendant. For example, if your criminal charges have been expunged and you’re applying for a job or trying to rent an apartment, you do not need to disclose those expunged convictions.

How Do I Know If I Am Eligible for Expungement?

Eligibility for expungement depends on a variety of factors, depending on where you live. Some factors that the courts may consider include the nature of the crime or charge, the amount of time that has passed since the arrest or conviction, and the defendant’s criminal history.

However, some states do not allow for the expungement of criminal records at all, even if you do have several factors that may weigh in your favor.

Are there Exceptions to the Expungement Rules?

Misdemeanors and juvenile offenses are the most common offenses for expungement, but felony expungement can be extremely difficult to obtain. (Offenses involving child pornography, sexual crimes, or felonies where the victim is younger than 18 years old are usually not eligible for expungement.)  

Even if a felony conviction is expunged, the court may consider the expunged convictions during sentencing if you are convicted of a new offense.

Even though you do not have to disclose expunged offenses on most job applications, this rule does not apply if you are applying for certain jobs. Jobs that require a high level of security or involve issues of national security will require you to disclose even expunged convictions.

For example, if you apply to become a police officer or a federal agent that requires a security clearance, you will need to disclose even your expunged convictions in your application materials.

Are Expungement and Record Sealing the Same Thing?

Generally, it depends on the state you live in. Some states use the terms “expungement” and “record sealing” interchangeably to express the same concept. In other states, having your records sealed is similar, but not quite the same — the records are not available to the public, but still exist in the context of the criminal justice system.

That means that if any person (such as potential employers, educational institutions, or other companies), conducts a public record search, those expunged records will not appear as part of the search. However, records that are sealed, but not expunged, still count as prior offenses if you face other criminal charges in the future.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Want to Clear My Criminal Record?

Getting your criminal record cleared can sometimes be more complicated than it seems at first. It may be in your best interests to hire a lawyer to help you navigate the process. An experienced expungement lawyer can help talk you through your specific situation and research your state’s laws to determine whether you qualify for record expungement.

When the time comes, a lawyer can also help you file the required documents and represent your interests during formal proceedings if necessary. As with many legal issues you may deal with, it’s a good idea to talk to a lawyer who can help you and answer any questions you may have, instead of struggling to figure things out by yourself.