Expungement laws offer people a way to seal, erase, or limit public access to certain criminal records—from arrest and charging records to conviction and pardon records. Having a criminal record can create barriers to employment, housing, education, and professional licensing. States have enacted expungement laws to help limit the reach and effect of a criminal record, so that after a certain amount of time has passed, people can move on with their lives and become productive citizens.
Across the country, many states in recent years have expanded eligibility for expungement, as the number of people affected by criminal records has also grown. While a criminal record typically never completely disappears, especially in the age of the Internet, expungement can provide some relief.
State law defines which crimes are eligible for expungement and how the process works—so you need to look at the laws in the state where your record exists. And be aware that not all states use the term "expungement." Some states use terms such as "dismissal," "set aside," "expunction," "sealing," or "limited access."
Generally, to be eligible for an expungement, you must complete the terms of your sentence, including any period of probation, parole, or supervised release. Each state has a different list of crimes that can be expunged. In some states, only misdemeanors are eligible for expungement, while in others, felonies can also be expunged with the exception of very serious or violent crimes. You must usually wait a period of time after completion of the sentence as well and remain crime-free (no new arrests or convictions) during the waiting period.
Some states give courts a great deal of discretion in deciding whether or not to grant an expungement and allow judges to consider things like the seriousness of the crime, the person's behavior since the conviction, and any prior convictions. In other states, the law requires courts to grant an expungement unless a disqualifying factor exists (like a new arrest), which gives judges much less power to deny an expungement.
Many states require a person to file a petition with the court of conviction to get an expungement. However, the process and steps required differ by state. In most states, a person must file a form (often called a petition) with the court asking for expungement—some states use simple, straightforward forms, but others have complicated petitions that might require the assistance of an attorney. A few states have an automatic process that requires no action on the part of the individual to expunge certain types of criminal records (more on this below).
The cost of filing an expungement petition in court varies from state to state and sometimes from county to county. The filing fee can be expensive, costing several hundred dollars. Some states allow the court to waive or reduce the fee if the petitioner can demonstrate financial hardship.
The effect of an expungement also varies from state to state. The record is almost always still available for law enforcement or a court to see. In some places, the record is sealed from public viewing, and in others, like California, the record will still be publicly available but the conviction will say "dismissed."
Often you don't need to disclose an expunged conviction or arrest on a job, housing, or licensing application. However, even if you're not legally obligated to disclose a conviction, an employer or landlord might still be able to find evidence of the criminal record on the Internet, as information that was once public is difficult to erase online. You might want to consult an attorney or employment specialist to get advice on whether to disclose prior convictions or arrests in these situations.
Many states have recently expanded laws on expungement in an effort to limit the consequences of a conviction and prevent records from following a person forever. Even if your criminal record is not currently eligible for expungement, it pays to keep checking—as the laws in this area are constantly changing and relief might become available at a later date. Speaking to a lawyer or visiting a court self-help center or legal aid clinic can help you navigate your state's expungement laws and figure out what relief you might be eligible for in order to minimize the effect of a criminal record.