In the District of Columbia (D.C.), your criminal record can be sealed—that is, erased or "expunged"—under the very limited circumstances described below. Read on to learn more about expungement in Washington, D.C.
In D.C., a person can ask the court to seal or expunge an old criminal record based on the fact they were innocent or in the "interests of justice." (More on this standard below.) Expunged or sealed records are hidden from public view. For most purposes, a person whose record is sealed can legally say they were never arrested, prosecuted, or convicted of the sealed offense.
Sealed records in D.C. are not physically destroyed. Rather, government agencies keep sealed records in a nonpublic file and limit access to the file. While the public won't typically have access to sealed records, government agencies might. Many sealed records can be opened when relevant to a criminal investigation or sentencing, civil lawsuit or child protection case, or for certain employment and professional licensing purposes, such as employment with law enforcement, the judicial branch, schools, and daycares. (D.C. Code § 16-806 (2023).)
Eligibility for record sealing depends on the type of record and the grounds for sealing the record.
A person who seeks to seal a non-conviction record on the grounds of actual innocence can do so at any time. The law doesn't impose a wait period or other eligibility requirements, aside from the burden of proving innocence.
When applying to seal non-conviction or conviction records in all other cases, the person will be subject to the following.
No pending charges. At the time of applying for expungement, the person can't have any pending (active) criminal charges.
Wait period. The person must complete a wait period before applying for expungement. The exact amount of time depends on the type of record. The wait period starts after the case ends—in the case of a conviction, that means the person has completed the entire sentence (including supervision and payment of all financial obligations).
Prior or later convictions. Having a prior or later conviction on record may disqualify a person from sealing a conviction record. While the same situation won't disqualify a person from seeking to seal a non-conviction record, an old or new conviction will delay eligibility.
In D.C., a person may ask the court to seal non-conviction records (such as arrest and charging records where no convicted resulted) and certain conviction records.
Conviction records. For the most part, felony convictions cannot be sealed. The one exception is a felony conviction for failure to appear. Certain misdemeanor convictions may be sealed, although there's a long list of ineligible misdemeanors.
Non-conviction records. The law doesn't limit what types of records can be sealed if no conviction resulted in the case. However, most non-conviction records are not eligible for sealing until the applicable wait period has passed.
The law permits a court to seal records only when a person proves their innocence or proves that sealing the record is in the "interests of justice." Interests of justice basically means that sealing the record will help the person by advancing their rehabilitation (such as by getting a job) and won't harm the public (who will no longer have this information).
In cases where a case ends without a conviction, a person may ask the court to seal the record based on actual innocence or in the interests of justice.
While there are no eligibility requirements or wait periods to seal records based on innocence, the longer a person waits to file the request, the harder it becomes to prove innocence.
For motions filed within four years of a case ending, the person needs to establish innocence by a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of more likely than not). After four years, the burden increases to clear and convincing evidence (meaning a great deal of certainty), plus the court might determine that so much time has passed that it can't make a fair assessment and, ultimately, deny the motion.
(D.C. Code § 16-802 (2023).)
In cases where a person was arrested or charged but not convicted of a crime, the person must wait a set number of years after the case ends to ask for expungement. As noted above, the person must also show that sealing the record is in the interests of justice.
For non-conviction records, the wait period is:
If, however, a person has a prior or later conviction for an ineligible misdemeanor or any felony (other than failure to appear), the law extends the wait period. A conviction for an ineligible misdemeanor extends the wait period to five years and a felony extends it to 10 years.
(D.C. Code §§ 16-801, 16-803 (2023).)
Eligibility for sealing conviction records is limited to one type of felony offense (failure to appear) and eligible misdemeanors (see definition above).
To qualify for expungement of an eligible conviction record, the person:
A "disqualifying conviction" includes prior convictions for ineligible felonies or misdemeanors and any subsequent convictions.
(D.C. Code §§ 16-801, 16-803 (2023).)
A person arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime that has since been decriminalized or legalized—such as possession of marijuana—may petition to have the related records sealed at any time.
The person's record must be sealed if no other charges or convictions were involved. However, if the case was not limited to the one offense, the person must convince the court to seal the record based on the interests-of-justice standard discussed above.
(D.C. Code § 16-803.02 (2023).)
Cleaning up your criminal record can be complicated. To learn more about expunging criminal records in Washington, D.C., you may want to contact a criminal defense attorney. You might also find helpful information on the websites for the District of Columbia Courts or Public Defender Services office.