Expungement or Dismissal of Adult Criminal Records in California

Learn about California's expansive criminal record sealing system including eligibility requirements, wait periods, and more.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated December 18, 2023

The consequences of a criminal conviction can persist long after a sentence is served. People with records face social stigma and barriers to housing, employment, education, and immigration.

To help lower these barriers, California has adopted the most comprehensive and streamlined expungement and record-sealing system in the United States.

What Is Expungement?

The dictionary definition of "expunge" is to "destroy" or "erase." In criminal law, the term "expungement" refers to the process of cleaning up your criminal record.

True expungement doesn't exist in California, but you can potentially have many arrest records sealed and convictions set aside and dismissed if you meet certain requirements. Starting in July 2023, with the passage of SB 731, many eligible arrests and convictions will be automatically cleared.

The law related to clearing your record is complicated and frequently changes. If you have questions, talk to a lawyer. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, contact the public defender or legal aid in the county where the conviction happened.

Sealing Arrest Records in California If You Were Not Convicted of a Crime

If you have an arrest that didn't result in a conviction, you might be able to have your arrest record sealed if:

  • you were arrested, but no charges were filed and the statute of limitations has run
  • you were arrested and charged, but the charges were dismissed
  • you were arrested and convicted, but the conviction was reversed on appeal
  • you completed a diversion program
  • you completed "deferred entry of judgment" (DEJ), or
  • you went to trial and were acquitted (found not guilty).

Sealing means that your arrest record is hidden from public view, though some government agencies will still have access to it and you'll still have to disclose that you've been arrested under limited circumstances. Many sealings are now automatic, or you can file a Petition to Seal Arrest and Related Records (Form CR-409).

(California Penal Code §§ 851.6-851.93 (2023).)

Expungement in California If You Were Convicted of a Crime

If you've been convicted of a crime in California, you might be eligible (or even entitled) to have your plea or conviction set aside and your case dismissed. This form of record relief is called an "expungement," though it doesn't completely erase the conviction.

Your ability to get an expungement depends on:

  • your offense
  • your sentence, and
  • what happened after your sentence.

Who Is Eligible?

If you were convicted of a misdemeanor or felony and a judge sentenced you to probation, you may be eligible to clear your conviction if:

  • you've completed probation
  • you're not currently serving a sentence, and
  • you have no pending charges.

If you're still on probation, you may ask for an early termination of probation and then request an expungement.

If you were convicted of a misdemeanor but weren't sentenced to probation, you may ask for relief one year after your sentencing.

You are no longer required to fully pay restitution to get record relief.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.3, 1203.4, 1203.4a (2023).)

What If I Violated Probation?

If you satisfied the terms and conditions of your probation, or if you were granted early termination of probation, the court must withdraw your plea or conviction and dismiss your case.

If you didn't satisfy the terms of your probation, you may still ask for record relief. It will be up to the judge to decide whether or not granting your request is "in the interests of justice."

(Cal. Penal Code § 1203.4 (2023).

What If I Was Sentenced Under Penal Code Section 1170(h)?

In 2011, the Criminal Justice Realignment Act eliminated state prison as a sentence option for hundreds of felonies. If you were convicted of an 1170(h) felony and sentenced to jail with mandatory supervision, you can ask for record relief one year after completing your sentence. A judge will grant your request if it's "in the interests of justice."

If your sentence didn't include mandatory supervision, you're eligible to ask for discretionary relief two years after you complete your sentence.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 1170, 1203.41 (2023).

What If I Went to Prison?

In the not-too-distant past, going to state prison would have made you automatically ineligible for expungement relief. Now, even if you've served time in state prison for a felony, you can ask for record relief two years after serving your sentence, except for felonies requiring sex offense registration.

If you participated as a fire crew member in a Conservation Camp Program, you may be eligible for expedited record relief.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.4b, 1203.41, 1203.42 (2023).

Who Isn't Eligible?

You're not eligible for relief if:

  • you're serving a sentence for any offense
  • you're on probation for any offense
  • you're currently facing criminal charges, or
  • you were convicted of certain sex offenses.

How to Clear Your Record in California

California is working to expand eligibility and access to expungements with "clean slate" laws.

Automatic Sealing and Expungements

Effective July 2023, California has the broadest automatic record clearance in the country. Under SB 731, the Department of Justice will review the criminal database monthly and automatically seal eligible records, including:

  • arrest records when misdemeanor or felony charges are dismissed
  • arrest records when no changes are filed within one to six years
  • conviction records for misdemeanors and some felonies when probation is fulfilled, and
  • post-January 1, 2005 conviction records for non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual felony offenses four years after parole or other supervision ends if no new felony offenses.

According to the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national criminal justice reform group, at least 225,000 Californians will have an old conviction automatically sealed as a result of SB 731.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 667.5, 851.93, 1192.7, 1203.425 (2023).

Petition-Based Expungements

If you don't qualify for or trust the automatic record sealing and expungement process, you can apply for an expungement.

In most cases, you'll need to file a Petition for Dismissal (CR-180) in the court where you were convicted. You may have a hearing in front of a judge, especially when it's up to the judge to decide if expungement is "in the interests of justice."

If the judge approves your expungement, the judge will sign an Order for Dismissal (CR-181) to make your expungement an official court order.

If you have to convince the judge to grant your petition, you'll want to explain why you deserve an expungement and how it will help you in the future. You can submit letters of support from people who can talk about your positive qualities and proof of your accomplishments, such as certificates of completion of treatment programs, schooling, or employment records.

What Does Expungement Do?

If your conviction is expunged, the court will send the order to the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies.

Expungements often help with:

  • employment
  • housing
  • student loans
  • financial services, and
  • reducing stigma.

Learn more about what to expect after clearance.

What Does Expungement Not Do?

An expungement in California doesn't erase all of the consequences of a criminal conviction. Your criminal history will still be disclosed in a background check when you apply to work in education, law enforcement, or public office.

An expungement also doesn't:

  • restore your right to have firearms (though having a felony wobbler reduced to a misdemeanor might)
  • prevent an expunged conviction from being used as a "prior" to increase punishment in the future
  • relieve you of an obligation to register as a sex offender
  • give you your driver's license back, or
  • prevent the federal government from considering the conviction for immigration purposes in most cases.

In California, the granting of a Certificate of Rehabilitation or a Governor's pardon may restore additional additional rights.

Getting Legal Help

The process of cleaning up your record can be complicated. The California courts offer a self-help guide on how to clean your record.

If you have questions about whether you're eligible for relief, contact the public defender or legal aid in the county where you were convicted.

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