Expungement is a useful, but oft-misunderstood tool for criminal defendants. Many people think that lawyers can work a miracle using expungement procedures, but very often, the process can be lengthy, and is not available for everyone who has been involved with the criminal justice system.
Expungement is different from sealing – sealing means that the records still exist, but they are hidden from the public at large. Expungement means the record is completely destroyed, to the point where it is like it never existed. This means that you can legally say on job applications, rental applications, and all future legal documents that you have never been arrested or charged with a crime – which can be extremely useful if you are wanting to start over with a clean slate. Generally, if you are eligible for expungement, all records on file with any court, law enforcement agency or correctional facility can be expunged; however, in most states, arrests and convictions for serious and violent felonies usually cannot be expunged. Typically, expungement is only available for those who have committed first-time misdemeanor, or non-violent felony crimes.
Expungement is rarely an automatic process, unless you live in a state that requires juvenile records to be expunged after a certain period of time. Many times, the juvenile records are already automatically sealed, allowing juvenile offenders to enter into adulthood with no permanent criminal record. If you have earned a criminal record as an adult, you will not be so lucky. Generally, it helps if you obtain an attorney to help you file an expungement request. Each jurisdiction has its own process and standards, and even if you follow the procedure to the ‘tee,’ the court can always deny your expungement. Things that will help your expungement are if a good period of time has passed since the arrest or conviction, the criminal proceedings were wholly dismissed or you were acquitted after a trial, or there was only an arrest and no conviction. The expungement might be denied if there are still outstanding fines or fees associated with the case, you have already expunged your record once, the crime was sexual in nature, or you have a current, pending case on file separate and apart from the one in question. Each state has different criteria and procedures, so it would be prudent to seek out the counsel of a licensed attorney in that state to guide you. It is also important to note that usually, if a crime occurred in one state, you can only offer a motion for expungement in that particular state. In other words, if you were arrested in California, then later moved to New York, you would need to approach the California courts for your expungement – there is no nationwide system for state crime expungement.
Expungement can be done without a lawyer. Many courts offer a simple form for you to fill out, and the hearing is relatively straight forward. Most states conduct a simultaneous background check, and you will often have to submit your fingerprints (even if you have already done so before). The fees can range from $50.00 to $350.00, but that is usually all it will cost – there are no additional fees on top of that for court hearings. Given the fact that most states still require you to divulge if you have ever been arrested or convicted of a felony, if you have been convicted of a non-violent felony, it will be well worth the time and money to request an expungement from the court.