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What is Expungement and How to Get It?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in CrimeNovember 19, 2020

Many states allow your criminal record to show up in public records. Total strangers, family, and friends could have immediate access to it at any time. If you got into trouble in the past and have turned over a new leaf but don’t want the stain of your old criminal record to affect your new life, consider expungement.

Expungement Definition

Sometimes referred to as expunction, expungement is a legal process where someone with a criminal record can apply to have their records hidden from public view. Typically, the courts handle this process, and you have to fill out paperwork and pay a fee.

Not all states allow expungement. Some states call it sealing or “setting aside,” and those records that are expunged will not show up in a background check for a potential employer. If your criminal record is successfully expunged, you do not have to divulge those crimes to anyone who asks; it is if they never happened. 

State laws on expungement vary widely. Some states allow only specific types of crimes (low-level misdemeanors) to be expunged but do not allow more serious crimes (rape, murder, sex offenses) or felonies to be expunged. New York does not allow you to expunge any of your records, ever. 

Are Criminal Records Gone Forever?

No. Although expungement does hide these criminal records from the public and potential employers, most branches of law enforcement will still be able to access them. 

Some juvenile records may be sealed even from law enforcement. In a few states, juvenile records are automatically expunged when the person turns 18, as long as they have not committed any further crimes.


Applying for expungement depends on various factors. First, you have to contact the court where your criminal sentencing took place. You may have to gather paperwork such as verification of completing probation, parole, or a court-ordered program. 

Usually, you must also wait a specific amount of time after completing your sentence before applying for expungement. The length of time you must wait depends on the severity of the crime, your age, and other factors. 

In some cases, you can apply for expungement only if you were arrested but never charged with a crime. In other cases, you can apply even if you were charged, sentenced, and completed your punishment. 

Are Sealed Records the Same as Expunged?

In some states, they allow you to apply to have your records sealed. This may be in addition to expungement or in place of it. It is a similar process, but the records will be visible to more than just law enforcement. For example, private investigators will be able to access your “sealed” criminal history. Creditors and some employers would also be able to view them during a background check. 

What is a Pardon?

Expungement is not a forgiveness of the crime, even though it hides your records from most people. A pardon is forgiveness and can only be issued by the President, Governor, and other elected government officials. A judge grants expungement. 

what is a pardon

Benefits of Expungement

Expungement is designed to give ex-criminals a fresh start so they can apply for licenses, jobs and receive benefits that law-abiding citizens enjoy. The American justice system recognizes that someone with a criminal record may have a difficult time reintegrating back into normal society after committing a crime. Expungement is an opportunity to make that process easier.

When applying for school, jobs, or a license, someone who has successfully expunged their records can legally say “no” when asked if they have ever been convicted of committing a crime. However, this is not true in all states. 

The majority of U.S. states offer expungement of some records. Typically, most court records, incarceration records, arrests, detention documents, and trial paperwork can be expunged legally. 

  • Thankfully, most states allow expungement (45 states plus the District of Columbia) for some offenses.
  • Most states allow expungement when the offender was arrested, but it did not result in a conviction.
  • The majority of states also allow expungement for misdemeanor offenses.
  • Some do allow expungement for some felonies (not violent or sex offenses) after a certain amount of time.
  • A few states even allow ex-convicts (after expungement) to vote and purchase firearms. 

How to Get Your Records Expunged

You should first contact the Clerk of the Court where you were sentenced. You may also consider hiring an expungement lawyer as the process can be complex if you have multiple charges. 

The court will direct you to the proper paperwork. Often it can be downloaded from the courthouse website. You will have to wait the proper amount of time, fill it all out, and provide any support documents to prove you have successfully completed your sentencing. You will have to pay a fee, and those vary by state/court. 

Once you have filed your application, you may have to wait several weeks or even months before the judge decides. 

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