The process for clearing a criminal record is known as “expungement”, or “record sealing.” If eligible, a person who has been convicted of crimes may have their criminal record erased as if the crimes never occurred. A criminal record that has been cleared can’t be accessed by the public, and the person is legally allowed to deny that they have committed the crime (for example, when filling out a job application).

State laws may vary regarding how to clear a criminal record. Generally speaking, most misdemeanorsDUI charges, and minor crimes can be expunged after a certain period of time, usually at least five years after the conviction. Expungement may also be available when:

  • The defendant was arrested for a crime but not convicted
  • The defendant was unlawfully arrested
  • The defendant has maintained consistent good behavior following the conviction
  • A minor has reached the age of majority (i.e. when they turn 18 years old)

Generally, felony charges cannot be expunged, especially those involving crimes of a sexual nature.

What’s the Procedure for How to Clear a Criminal Record?

In most states, clearing a criminal record is not an automatic process. Instead, the defendant needs to file a motion with the court requesting that their record be expunged.  After filing the motion, the court will conduct an investigation into the person’s criminal background to see if they qualify for expungement.

In some cases, the court needs to hold a hearing to determine eligibility for expungement. Often, the person doesn’t need to attend such a hearing, and the court’s decision may be sent through the mail.  However, if summoned to court, the person will need to make an appearance, typically with the presence of a criminal lawyer.

For some states, juvenile records are sealed automatically once the minor turns 18 years old. This can vary however, and may depend on the types of crimes listed in the person’s record.

Are There Any Exceptions to the General Rules Regarding Expungement?

While misdemeanors and juvenile offenses can often be expunged, felony expungement is difficult to obtain. Sometimes this can be waived, but it is usually a difficult process. Also, even if a person’s criminal record was cleared, should there be new criminal charges, the court can use the expunged offense as evidence of past crimes when setting a sentence for the new offense. 

Lastly, even though you do not have to disclose expunged offenses on most job applications, a person may be required to disclose expunged convictions when applying for jobs that involve a high level of security or national security issues (such as applications to become a police officer or a federal agent).

Do “Expungement” and “Record Sealing” Mean the Same Thing?

This depends on the state- some states use the terms “expungement” and “record-sealing” interchangeably. In other states, the term “sealing” refers specifically to the fact that the record can’t be accessed by the public. Similarly, “expungement” may refer to the complete erasure or destruction of any information related to previous criminal convictions.
Other terms that are used are “expunction”, “removal of records”, or “destruction of records”. In general, all of these terms refer to similar processes involving the clearing of criminal records.  If you’re confused about what these different terms mean, a criminal defense lawyer can explain how they might affect your situation.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Instructions on How to Clear a Criminal Record?

Getting one’s criminal record cleared can sometimes be a complex process. Instead of trying to figure out how to clear a criminal record by yourself, you may wish to hire an expungement lawyer for assistance. Your lawyer can help research your state laws to determine your eligibility for record expungement. They can help you file the required documents with the court, and can represent you during formal court hearings if necessary.