Having a criminal record of a conviction—or even the record of an arrest—can negatively impact a person’s life. Expunging or sealing your criminal record could open doors to new opportunities.
A criminal record can be a barrier, for instance, to securing employment, housing, and professional licenses, because most employers and landlords now conduct background checks on applicants as a matter of routine. And applications for professional licenses usually require information about an applicant’s criminal history. Even a record containing a single minor criminal offense such as misdemeanor trespassing or disorderly conduct can cause difficulties in a person’s life years later. Fortunately, in some cases—depending on the specifics of your record and laws in the state where the incident occurred—you might be able to clear your criminal record through a process called "expungement" or "expunction."
This article concerns adult criminal records. If you are interested in sealing a juvenile court record, see Expunging or Sealing a Juvenile Court Record.
Expungement refers to the process of destroying, erasing, or sealing arrest or conviction records. Almost every state has enacted laws that allow people to expunge arrests and, often, convictions from their records. Though the details vary from one state to the next, most states' laws provide that, once an arrest or conviction has been expunged, it can't be disclosed publicly, including to most potential employers and landlords. For example, if your criminal record consisted of only one conviction for petty theft and you later had the conviction expunged, you can legally answer, “No” if you apply for a job and the application asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?"
Although expunging or sealing a criminal record generally means that it will not appear in a background check and that the courts will not disclose the record, in some situations, the court may be required to disclose the record or a person or organization may be entitled to access it. For example, the record may be accessible to a government agency if you apply for a position in law enforcement. Also, expunging a record does not prevent law enforcement, prosecutors, or the court from accessing it. Expunged records can be used in future charging and sentencing decisions.
For information about the situations in which a sealed or expunged record can be disclosed or used against you, refer to The Limits of Expunging Your Criminal Record.
The first step in seeking an expungement is to determine whether your record qualifies. A few states have very strict laws and rarely allow expungement of accurate arrest or conviction records, but most have expungement procedures that depend on the following factors:
It is unlikely that any state law will allow expungement of a very serious crime, such as a violent felony or sex offense, except in a case of mistaken identity or identity theft where you actually are not the person who was convicted of the crime. Some states also prohibit or limit (say by imposing a longer wait period) expungement of misdemeanor DUIs and domestic violence offenses.
A few states automatically expunge older criminal records or require the court to immediately expunge records upon dismissing a case. But again, each state operates differently and the laws keep changing, meaning—keep checking for updates to your state's laws.
If your criminal record is eligible for expungement, you might not need to hire an attorney to complete the process. Some states make it easy to apply for expungement, and many court websites offer expungement information and forms you can download for free. You usually will be required to pay a fee in order to file the expungement application with the court. But check the court website to see if you qualify to file for free (sometimes referred to as in forma pauperis.) In more complex situations, you will need the assistance of a qualified criminal law attorney.
Check out the links below to learn more about expunging criminal records in your state. Remember that state laws can change. So even if you're not eligible at the moment, keep checking your state's laws for updates that might work to your benefit.
District of Columbia