How to Get your Record Expunged
A criminal record is a serious issue that may stay with you for your entire adult life. Getting records expunged, whether that means they are sealed, annulled, or destroyed, may be the only way to escape the stigma of getting on the wrong side of the law.
What is expungement or sealing
Sealing or expunging court records keeps the public and prospective employers from seeing legal charges in a person’s past. While the term “expunge” literally means destroying records, even these records still may be available to certain people, including judges, prosecutors, and police who may review past records when evaluating a current opportunity to charge an individual with a crime. Many crimes have elevated consequences if the individual has a previous conviction, particularly if the prior conviction is a felony.
States use different words to describe the process often called expungement. Technically, expungement means destruction of all related records, but that rarely happens. In general, having a record expunged will only restrict who can see it. The terms expungement, restricted, sealed, removed, or dismissed generally mean the same thing in different states.
The Expungement process
Expunging a record is a process that is not available to everyone in every state. Most states offer some options for this process, but in general expungement is reserved for non-violent misdemeanors, juvenile offenses, those who were arrested but not prosecuted or whose case was dropped by the authorities. Other states may allow those with a criminal record to reduce the charges from felony to misdemeanor offenses after a period of time if the sentence has been completed and all fines or restitution paid. This has an effect similar to expungement, because misdemeanors are rarely an issue for employment, eligibility for an apartment lease, a school application, adoption, international travel, or gun ownership.
In general, those who were sentenced to time in state prison for their conviction are not eligible for expungement, nor are those with records of crimes like rape, murder, or assaults on children.
Driving records may be maintained by states separately from criminal cases that result from driving infractions like DUI offenses. Therefore one may expunge his criminal record but the DUI would remain on his state driving record unless the state allows action to be taken on those records.
What is a pardon
A pardon is a different process that requires an appeal to the governor or his or her governor’s council. A pardon is a type of administrative forgiveness, often for felony convictions that are not eligible under most states’ expungement laws, which restores pre-conviction rights such as the right to vote, possess a firearm, and to run for office. These administrative procedures are rare in most states, but common in others (Alabama allows 500 pardons a year but Alaska grants around 3).
Purging or sealing criminal records held in federal courts is up to the individual court. According to some sources, federal records are only eligible for expungement or sealing if the offense was a first-time drug offense when the defendant was under age 21, or under circumstances when the law was subsequently found to be unconstitutional, or if the conviction stemmed from government misconduct.
Any petition for expungement of a federal drug conviction starts with an application to the Attorney General’s office, which will ensure that the applicant has been drug-free and without subsequent convictions for a specified period of years.
Sampling of expungement rules, state-by-state
Many states have recognized that the country’s high rate of imprisonment has created a class of people with extraordinary obstacles to gainful employment, higher education, and future success in life after they are restored to society. This has promoted a trend in refining the expungement process which seeks to reduce the stigma of a criminal record. States like Minnesota, Arkansas, and Indiana, among others, have recently revamped expungement rules to make more people eligible to clear their records.
The state of Illinois requires a four-year waiting period before a record can be expunged, and then it will only apply to those crimes for which the sentence was supervision (similar to probation) rather than jail time.
Georgia requires individuals who were convicted prior to 2013 to make an expungement application through the authorities that conducted the arrest and prosecuted the crime. These officials then submit the information to the Georgia Crime Information Center for sealing records.
Indiana may expunge certain felonies, but only those that are non-violent and not of a sexual nature. The state requires a 5-10 year waiting period during which the individual must have a clean record and no pending charges.
In 2018 Missouri’s law on expungement expanded, allowing individuals to petition for removal of records for all but the most serious felonies. In addition, those with juvenile records of being a minor in possession of alcohol may request special expungement of that record.
Florida is updating its criminal history systems as well as some laws and processes, resulting in a more streamlined procedure for applying for expungement. In this state, juvenile records are automatically expunged as long as the individual has not been convicted of a serious felony since the original conviction. Administrative expungements are available to those who have an arrest record that is easily proven wrong (when prosecution is not pursued). Likewise, victims of human trafficking may petition to have related convictions sealed.
California defines this process as “dismissal” rather than expungement or sealing records. The process in this state requires reopening the case and changing the defendant’s plea or the judge’s ruling, resulting in a dismissal, and effectively, cleansing the record. Forms and instructions for the process are available on the state court’s website. Copies of letters from employers and others in positions of authority that testify to the applicant’s character may be helpful to submit with the application.
Minnesota courts may expunge all records held at courthouses, police stations, and other locations (known as full expungement) under certain conditions: if the offense were a first time drug conviction, if it was a juvenile offense prosecuted in adult court, or if the case were decided in your favor.
Unfortunately, if a conviction doesn’t qualify for full expungement then the charges may continue to show up on employment checks. Those who are required to register as sex offenders may not expunge that issue.
How to Get your Criminal Records Expunged?
1. Get a copy of your criminal record;
2. Consult with a court clerk or private attorney to determine what is eligible for expungement;
3. Check the state or court website to find the appropriate forms for expungement;
4. Gather other material needed, such as school records, certificates, drug testing histories, and letters of good conduct from employers or community officials;
5. Fill out and submit the forms and other documents along with any payment necessary;
6. Expungement generally takes several months to be decided, and if denied, it is possible to reapply (or to seek a pardon).