Whether a person can petition a court to seal records of juvenile arrests or detentions is a matter of state law.
Many people believe that juvenile records just automatically disappear or become closed to public view, at least when the juvenile turns 18 and becomes an adult. This is not the case in a variety of situations in reality. They may well remain accessible to certain parties and may still affect the juvenile’s life. A person with a juvenile record, or a person who is interested in a juvenile’s welfare, may need to be proactive and take affirmative action to make sure records are sealed.
When juvenile records are sealed, they are closed to the public. Complete physical destruction of juvenile records is referred to as “expungement.” Sealed records are closed to the public but remain accessible to a limited number of court and law enforcement personnel connected to a juvenile’s case.
Again, only expungement brings about the complete physical destruction of a juvenile record. All references to a juvenile’s arrest, detention, adjudication, disposition and probation are physically deleted from the files of the court, law enforcement, and any other person or agency that may have provided services to a juvenile pursuant to a court order. Once records are expunged, it is as if they never existed.
Sealing records only makes them inaccessible to certain parties. For example, in Nebraska, when a juvenile record is sealed, neither potential employers, licensing agencies, landlords nor educational institutions may gain access to them. However, a juvenile record does remain accessible to law enforcement officers, prosecutors and sentencing judges for purposes of investigation and prosecution of any future crimes in which the juvenile may be involved.
When Can a Person Ask the Court to Seal a Juvenile Record?
In most cases, once a person reaches the age of eighteen they may petition the court to seal the records. In cases where the juvenile offense or detention occurred at an early age, the court may be petitioned before the person reaches the age of 18. The number of years varies from state to state, but is usually around five years.
All states have some sort of procedure a juvenile can use to seal or expunge their juvenile criminal records in certain cases. Unfortunately, the procedure may be confusing and difficult. In some states, a young person is never notified if, when or how their juvenile record can be expunged. In some states, a juvenile cannot initiate the sealing process; only a prosecutor or judge can initiate sealing or expungement.
A number of states, but not all of them, have recently tried to change this situation by making it easier for young people by passing laws that provide for automatic sealing or expungement of juvenile records.
The following 15 states have passed laws that automatically seal or even expunge juvenile criminal records in certain situations:
- New Hampshire;
- New Mexico;
- North Dakota;
- South Carolina;
These state laws differ greatly in terms of which records are automatically sealed or expunged and when. In Montana, on a juvenile’s 18th birthday, their juvenile court records are sealed and their juvenile probation records destroyed.
In Alaska, official court records of some juvenile proceedings are automatically sealed within 30 days of the juvenile’s 18th birthday, but law enforcement records, such as arrest records, remain open. New Mexico law takes a different approach and requires that court and law enforcement records for all offenses be automatically sealed when the case is discharged.
In 2015 Illinois enacted a law that requires the Department of State Police to automatically expunge the law enforcement records of juveniles when they reach age 18, but only if the crime committed was a low-level offense and the juvenile has not been arrested within the last six months.
Current Florida law requires juveniles classified as serious offenders to have their records automatically destroyed when they reach the age of 26. Juveniles not classified as serious offenders have their criminal history record expunged when they turn 24. In 2016, Florida considered getting rid of the age requirements and automatically destroying records after the juvenile completes his or her sentence.
New York state has a somewhat complicated process for sealing juvenile records. What a juvenile must do in New York on their age and the process by which the juvenile was adjudicated.
- Juvenile Delinquent. Juveniles between the ages of 7 and 16 who are convicted with certain crimes that are not felonies can be adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent. The records of a juvenile delinquency adjudication are almost always automatically sealed. Sealed records of juvenile delinquency are still accessible by the criminal justice system, including law enforcement and prosecutors.
- Those whose records are not automatically sealed, e.g. because they were convicted of felonies, can file a Sealing Motion with the Family Court after the day on which they turn 16. If the motion is denied, the person can try again by filing a motion one year later;
- Youthful Offender. Juveniles who are 16, 17 or 18 who are tried as adults can be adjudicated as a youthful offender. As with the records of juvenile delinquents, these records should become sealed automatically, remaining accessible only to the justice system and the school in which the juvenile is enrolled. Youthful offenders have their trials in a criminal court. If a juvenile’s record is not sealed automatically, the juvenile must follow the same process as adults for sealing criminal records in New York;
- Juvenile Offender. Juveniles who are between the ages of 16 and 18 and are tried for certain felonies can be adjudicated as juvenile offenders. If they are convicted of the felonies charged, their records cannot be sealed.
In Massachusetts, a juvenile record can be sealed three years after the juvenile has finished serving any sentence that was imposed. This waiting period applies in all cases. In Massachusetts, sealing removes the record of the crime from the main record file and secures it in a separate, generally inaccessible, confidential file.
Only judges can see them, mainly for use if the juvenile is later charged with a new crime. If any member of law enforcement or a court employee asks to see a juvenile record, they are told that it has been sealed because it is a delinquency record over 3 years old. Any other person who asks is told that the person has no record.
When Will a Court Not Seal a Person’s Juvenile Record?
Usually a court does not seal juvenile records if the records concern an offense that would be considered a serious felony if it had been committed by an adult, such as murder or a felony sex crime. Also, if the person has committed another crime between the time of the initial offense and the time of petition to seal records, the court may not grant that petition.
What If My Name Appears in the Records of Another Person?
If a person’s name is mentioned in another person’s juvenile record, the person cannot have that record sealed. A person can only have records sealed if the person is the juvenile whose case has been adjudicated.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Sealing Juvenile Records?
Since laws for sealing juvenile records vary from state to state, it is important to consult a juvenile defense attorney in your state who is knowledgeable about the laws regarding sealing and expungement. Your attorney can assist you with any required legal process and inform you of your options in the state in which you live.