Expunging your arrest record or criminal charges can open many opportunities for you. Many jobs require a background check as part of the hiring process. Even minor infractions may prevent potential employers from considering you. Criminal convictions can prevent you from getting certain professional licenses. They can disqualify you from student loans and housing. If you qualify, applying for an expunction would be worth your time and the filing fees.
Expunction, Annulment, or Expungement?
States have various terms for expungement. Some call it an annulment; others call it an expunction. These are all generally the same thing. An expungement will erase an entry on your criminal history. It's as if the event never happened. A few states even destroy the physical court records of your offense. You can honestly say in most circumstances that you have never been arrested or convicted of a crime without risk of perjury.
While an expungement erases your criminal record, it is not entirely gone. Should you get arrested again, law enforcement agencies may have access to your prior history, even with an expungement order. The judicial system may consider these previous charges when handling your criminal case.
They may still appear at a federal level. This can be especially difficult if you are applying for a federal job or immigration benefits, or need a national security clearance. Seek legal advice if you want to learn more about how to clear your record.
Sealing Criminal Records or Setting Aside Convictions
Several states do not offer expunctions. Expungement also is not available for federal crimes except in very limited circumstances.
Your state may only seal your criminal history, keeping it from public view. A general background check for a job or apartment will not display that record.
Sealing your records is not the same as expunging them. A sealed record still exists. Some agencies, including law enforcement, can see it on your criminal record. A court order can unseal your records.
Having a criminal conviction set aside does not remove it from public record. The charges will still be visible. It simply notes that your charges or conviction has been “set aside." It means you have not had a conviction or a conviction is considered overturned.
Am I Eligible?
Expungement laws vary by state. It is within the judge or attorney general's discretion whether to grant or deny your request. Expunction may not be guaranteed.
Generally, a person's criminal record must meet specific standards to qualify. Expungement eligibility usually depends on several factors, including those listed below.
Where the Offense Occurred
The state where the offense happened is a significant factor in whether you can have your criminal history cleared. An expungement petition gets submitted in the same court that filed your case. Certain states do not expunge criminal records but may have other options. Other states will not expunge criminal convictions but may expunge misdemeanor offenses, acquittals, or dismissed charges.
If your state doesn't offer any of these options, you may be able to seek a pardon from your state's governor. You can check your state's laws on FindLaw's Expungement and Criminal Records: State-Specific Information page.
Age at the Time of the Offense
If you were a juvenile when charged or adjudicated, it might be easier to have your record expunged or sealed. Often, states will automatically seal your juvenile criminal history or expunge your juvenile records when you reach the age of majority, usually 18.
You should know that law enforcement may be able to access the expunged records if you get arrested as an adult. Those offenses can come into consideration when dealing with your new charges.
The Seriousness of the Crime
The type of criminal offense you were charged with is a big factor in whether you may have your record expunged. Many states will not expunge felony convictions.
Certain serious felony charges and violent crimes are not eligible for expungement. These include murder, felony domestic violence, arson, and sex crimes, especially involving a child. This also can vary by the state in which you live.
The Outcome of Your Case
You'll need to have successfully completed the terms of your probation or sentence. Make sure you have paid off all your fines and court costs. Complete any classes ordered by the court. You cannot apply for expungement, record sealing, or a pardon unless the court case is completed.
How Much Time Has Passed
Most states have a waiting period before you can file for expungement. It's typically several years, depending on the outcome of your case. It may be less for dismissed charges and more if you have a felony or misdemeanor conviction. The amount of time will vary by state.
Juvenile delinquency records are often eligible for expungement once you reach a particular age or within a certain amount of time after reaching 18.
Your Criminal History
When deciding to grant an expunction request, the judge or attorney general will look at your criminal history records. This will factor into their decision if you have other arrests, convictions, or pending charges. For instance, if you hope to expunge a prior driving under the influence (DUI) conviction, having other related offenses in your history will likely prevent granting your request.
New Trend in Marijuana Laws
More states are moving to legalize recreational marijuana use. Some jurisdictions are also decriminalizing the possession of marijuana within a certain amount. As these laws pass, states are allowing for the expungement of low-level drug offenses, even if they don't expunge other types of convictions. Several states have enacted automatic expungement of these crimes. These are generally misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance without intent to sell.
It would be worth your time to look at your state laws if this is the type of record you wish to remove. Your record may already be expunged.
Expungement Eligibility: Other Considerations
Convictions involving sex offenses may be subject to registration and reporting requirements. If you get these charges expunged, don't assume this also removes any sex offender registration or reporting requirements.
In California, for example, in addition to an order clearing your criminal records, you must file a separate motion to relieve your registration requirements. If that separate request is not granted, you still need to follow your state's registration and reporting laws.
Get Legal Help With the Expungement Process
It's good to know that those arrested or convicted of a crime can sometimes remove the incident from their records. But each case is different, so it helps to understand the expungement laws in your jurisdiction. Learn more about your expungement eligibility. Discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you. A criminal law attorney can guide you and fight for your rights.