Expungement is the legal process in which a person convicted of certain crimes can have the record of their conviction cleared, or sealed. After expungement, a person’s records are treated as if they no longer exist, and their criminal file is removed from public records completely. Most states in the U.S. allow for some form of expungement, although there is no constitutional right to expungement of a criminal record. When criminal records are sealed, they become they are off limits to all but law enforcement.

Although record sealing and expungement seem very similar, they are different. The key difference is that criminal records still exist if they are sealed, which means that the files and records are still there. However, sealed records cannot be accessed by employers and other people. Expungement results in the actual deletion or erasing of criminal charges and arrest files, as if they never occurred. Having a conviction on your record can cause problems in obtaining employment, professional licensure, and the right to vote. Having your criminal record sealed to all but law enforcement personnel can allow you to apply for employment, as an example, without your potential employer having knowledge of your criminal record.

The limits of and options for criminal record sealing and expungement differ from state to state, with all states allowing for some form of criminal record sealing for most juvenile offenses. It is generally standard proceedings that a person’s juvenile criminal files are sealed once they turn eighteen; however, the records can sometimes still be accessed through court order. 

Some charges may be more difficult than others to get expunged. An example of this would be how misdemeanor charges are typically more easily expunged than felony charges. Additionally, some states, such as California, allow expungements for misdemeanors and certain felonies so long as the individual meets specific criteria.

Who Qualifies for Record Sealing or Expungement?

Once again, each state has its own laws regarding whether a person’s record qualifies for sealing or expungement. In some states, and for some offenses, the court may seal or expunge the record on their own accord. However, in most states, a person would need to meet specific qualifications. Some examples of this include:

  • A set period of time has passed since completing the terms of the plea or conviction;
  • Whether the offender received probation, parole, or served the entirety of their jail or prison sentence;
  • Whether the offense was violent or nonviolent;
  • The person is not facing any new charges; and
  • Application for record sealing, in writing, with the court in which the conviction occurred.

As previously mentioned, some states automatically seal or expunge juvenile criminal records. However, even when this is the case, the juvenile record will only be sealed or expunged if the person remains clear of criminal trouble for a set amount of time after reaching adulthood. The majority of states in the U.S. do not have an automatic process, and require that the former juvenile offender bring a motion to have their criminal record sealed or expunged.

When filing for record sealing or expungement, the offender will usually file with the same court in which the prosecution took place. In general, a petition for sealing or expungement will only be good for one case. This means that if a person wishes to seal or expunge multiple records, they must file separate petitions. The judge then reviews the petition to determine their eligibility, and individual courts may have their own procedures for record sealing or expungement.

Some other things to note about criminal record sealing or expungement include:

  • If you are required to be registered as a sex offender as a result of conviction, sealing or expunging your record will not clear this requirement;
  • Nearly every sexual offense is not eligible for record sealing; and
  • In some states, although records are sealed, the original sealed conviction may still be used later on to increase the severity of future sentencing.

Once again, in criminal law, expungement means removing from the eyes of the public, but not for law enforcement purposes. Thus, expunging a criminal record does not mean that the records disappear from the eyes of the police. As such, it is possible for a juvenile record to be brought into a proceeding later on in an offender’s life. 

Generally, once a conviction has been sealed or expunged, an offender can legally deny ever having been convicted of that crime in nearly every situation. Importantly, certain exceptions apply to this rule. An example of this would be certain jobs that require you to disclose any conviction, even if they have been expunged, such as caring for children or government jobs.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Record Sealing?

You likely will not need an attorney if a criminal record is automatically expunged, unless you are facing prosecution or believe that the sealed or expunged record may later come into play. However, the majority of record sealing is not automatic. Therefore if you find yourself in a situation where you are considering having a record sealed or expunged, you should consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal attorney.

Specifically, you should consult with an experienced expungement attorney who specializes in expungement. An experienced attorney can educate you on your state’s laws regarding criminal record sealing and expungement, determine your eligibility, and advise you of your best course of legal action. Additionally, they can ensure that all necessary steps are taken in order to have your criminal record sealed or expunged correctly.