What Is Expungement?

by Team eLocal
Female defense attorney writing accused prisoners statements for court

The legal system is often complex and full of words that most people don't use in everyday conversations. Expungement relates to a criminal record and how past convictions appear.

Explore the definition and how expungement works.

What Is Expungement?

Legally, an expungement happens when an arrest or conviction record is erased, sealed or forgotten in the eyes of the law. It's not the same as a pardon, which means you're forgiven for a crime. It simply means the record is no longer visible in your public records, and you don't have to disclose the arrest or conviction.

What Does It Mean to Have a Record Expunged?

The way an expungement is handled can vary by jurisdiction. In general, the records are sealed, and the information isn't shared with anyone, even when someone conducts a background check. However, some government organizations can still see the records. To get an expungement, you typically have to prepare a court filing. It's usually recommended to have a criminal defense lawyer prepare and file the often complex paperwork. If you qualify for an expungement, the court will order the records expunged.

When Is a Criminal Record Expunged?

In some jurisdictions, certain criminal activity is automatically expunged. For example, some states automatically seal juvenile arrest records. For all other arrests and convictions, the eligibility can vary based on many factors. Some factors include:

  • Jurisdiction: States and counties vary in whether or not they allow expungement. Some areas don't allow expungement of any adult criminal activity, for example. The rules for expungement where the arrest or conviction happened determine eligibility.
  • Age: Crimes committed as a juvenile are most likely to get expunged as a way to give kids a second chance, but not all juvenile criminal activity can be expunged.
  • Type and frequency of crime: Repeat offenders aren't as likely to qualify for an expungement. The severity of the crime can also be a factor. For example, the jurisdiction might only expunge misdemeanors and not felonies.
  • Arrest or conviction: An arrest without a conviction is sometimes more likely to be expunged than a crime with a conviction.
  • Sentencing: In many jurisdictions, you can't get an expungement until you've fully served your sentence for the crime. This includes probation if you're required to serve it.

A criminal defense attorney can help you determine if you might qualify for expungement.