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Expungement Definition

What Is an Expungement?

An expungement removes all records associated with a criminal case, making it like the arrest, conviction, trial, or indictment never happened. Each state and jurisdiction has different rules for the expungement process. In states that allow expungement, the criminal case must usually have been resolved in your favor or otherwise be specifically allowed under state law. There are typically various other eligibility requirements. For example, while it is occasionally possible to expunge a felony offense, some serious crimes, such as murder or sexual assault, are never eligible to be expunged.

Key Takeaways

  • An expungement removes all traces of a criminal record
  • A clean criminal history is useful for future job and housing opportunities
  • To be eligible, the criminal case must usually be resolved in your favor or be specifically allowed under state law
  • Not everyone is eligible for an expungement of their criminal record
  • An expungement is not the same as sealing court records

Understanding Expungement

Through an expungement, you can destroy all the records associated with your criminal case. For example, the police department will destroy the physical copy of your arrest record after a successful expungement.

Destroying your criminal record has numerous benefits, including making it easier to find a job, get housing, and generally avoid the stigma associated with a criminal conviction. After completing a successful expungement, you can legally answer “no" to the question, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

How Does Expungement Work?

Typically, you will only meet the requirements for an expungement if the criminal case resolved in your favor (for example, if you were found innocent of all charges or the court dismissed the case against you). Some states have also specifically said that people convicted for certain crimes can get their records expunged after some amount of time has passed without any further arrests or involvement in the criminal justice system.

Expungements do not happen automatically, at least for adult criminal cases; they are court orders granted upon request if you meet the requirements under state law. An expungement is not part of your criminal case. Even if you are found innocent of all charges, you will have to ask the court for an expungement of your arrest record in a separate civil matter. Law enforcement agencies and the courts may be able to retain some information after an expungement, like your fingerprints, in case you ever have a run-in with the law again.

Some states automatically expunge the criminal records of juvenile offenders. This is not true for all states and jurisdictions, however, so you should check that any juvenile records really have been destroyed or sealed according to state law.

Do Expunged Records Show Up on a Background Check?

An expungement completely erases your arrest, conviction, and any other information that might show up from government sources. Unlike sealing criminal court records, after an expungement no indication is left that anything was removed or destroyed.

However, some private companies will delay or refuse to remove information about an arrest or conviction even after it is expunged. While it is typically against the law to request money to remove this information, there may still be traces of your information out there that can be hard to completely erase.

Importantly, if an employer or landlord uses information from a background check to refuse to hire you or deny you housing, you have the right under federal law to be aware of this information and get the name of the agency that ran the background check on you. You can then contest this inaccurate information. Remember that after an expungement you can legally deny ever being arrested, charged, or convicted of the crime you have had expunged - you do not need to tell the potential employer or landlord that you had it expunged.

What Crimes Can Be Expunged?

Many crimes, particularly violent crimes, cannot be expunged. This is true only if you are convicted, however. You may be able to expunge an arrest if you were found innocent of all charges.

States have also created laws specifically allowing for the expungement of certain offenses, particularly non-violent drug offenses such as marijuana possession. The expungement process and eligibility requirements differ by state and jurisdiction, so you'll have to check state law to see if you are eligible.

Expungement vs. Sealing and Pardoning

An expungement is not the same thing as sealing criminal records. Sealing your criminal case prevents the public from accessing your records. Courts and police retain your information, however. In an expungement, the records are destroyed, including physical copies. In addition, no evidence is left that anything was removed. Since all traces vanish, it is like the underlying event never happened.

A pardon is also separate from an expungement. Only governors can issue pardons for state crimes, and only the President of the United States can issue a pardon for federal crimes. Pardons do not erase the criminal record, nor do they mean that a person was found innocent. A background check will still show the arrest and/or criminal charges. However, the person will have a pardon to show that the governor or President forgave them.

Examples of Expunging a Criminal Record

Examples of successfully completed expungements include:

  • Arianna was convicted on marijuana possession charges before her state legalized the recreational use of cannabis. When it legalized marijuana, her state also passed a law specifically allowing for the expungement of misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession. Arianna takes advantage of this new law to expunge her record.
  • Brad was arrested on the suspicion that he robbed a convenience store near his house. However, he was found not guilty of all charges. After the trial, Brad petitioned the court to expunge evidence of his arrest so it would not show up when he applied for jobs.
  • Cecilia was convicted on minor in possession of alcohol charges when she was 16. Upon turning 18, this conviction was automatically expunged.