Unlike certain minor driving violations (and the points they add to your driver's license), criminal records don't eventually disappear. They hang around and—because of background checks—make it difficult for people to manage everything from finding employment and renting a home to applying for college and traveling abroad.
However, depending on the criminal history and state laws, it might be possible to obtain expunged records.
Record Expungement Defined
Simply put, record expungement is a way to make your criminal history or arrest record disappear (or, at least, a certain offense).
Having a record expunged means your record is no longer accessible to the public and you legally can answer “no" if asked whether you've been charged with or convicted of a crime.
Expunged Records vs. Sealed Records
Some states use different definitions for “expunged" and “sealed" records, and for the most part those definitions are similar.
Generally, though, sealed records differ from expunged records because sealed records still exist; they're not accessible to the general public or via background checks, but certain entities (such as government agencies) can obtain a court order to access the records.
Expunged Records vs. Pardons
When you receive a pardon for a criminal offense, it means you've been forgiven for that crime; however, pardons show up as part of your criminal history right along with the conviction unless part of the pardon conditions state you can apply to have the record expunged.
Generally, judges don't have the authority to issue pardons. For a pardon, you must turn to governors, secretaries of state, attorney generals, and sometimes even the President.
Certificate of Actual Innocence
As the name implies, a Certificate of Actual Innocence is reserved for someone found not guilty of a crime.
Remember, even if you're charged with a crime and found not guilty, you still could have a criminal record of that event.
Thus, a Certificate of Actual Innocence is the highest form of record expungement. Not only does a Certificate of Actual Innocence expunge a criminal record, but also it states that the record never should have existed in the first place.
Eligibility for Record Expungement
Each state sets its own eligibility requirements; however, these laws are generally based on:
- Your age at the time of the conviction.
- For example, were you a juvenile or adult? Many states are more apt to grant a record expungement to juveniles.
- Qualifying convictions.
- What was the crime? Often, states will expunge first-time drug offense records if you successfully complete an ordered drug or alcohol treatment program, but not more serious crimes such as weapons-based offenses.
- Also, misdemeanor crimes are more likely to get expunged than felonies.
- Current criminal record.
- Many states are more likely to expunge your record if it's a first-time offense and you've completed all requirements (such as jail time and payments of all fines); however, if you have multiple offenses on your record, expungement is unlikely.
How to Expunge Criminal Records
Just like your eligibility requirements, your process to expunge your criminal record depends on your state's laws, and while you can file for record expungement yourself, your best bet is to hire a criminal attorney.
Regardless of your state, some steps you can expect to take include:
- Determining whether your case is eligible for expungement.
- Your state might require a completed eligibility application.
- Obtaining copies of your criminal record and any other related court documents.
- Filing the appropriate paperwork and paying any required filing fees.
- Some states require a petition for expungement.
- After you file the paperwork and pay the fees, the court might automatically set your hearing date; if not, you must request a hearing date yourself.
These steps might seem daunting, which is why hiring a criminal attorney to represent you is a smart idea. He or she knows your state's laws on expunging records and can obtain documents, file paperwork, and handle hearing requests for you—not to mention make the best possible case for you in front of the judge.