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Getting a Criminal Record Expunged

Having a criminal record can make getting on with your life difficult. Employers, schools, landlords and others may want to know if you have a criminal history. You are required to say "yes," and it can feel like you're still being punished for past actions even though you have paid the price required by the court. Sometimes it is possible to truly put that chapter of your life behind you by getting all records of your misdemeanor crime expunged.

What Is Expungement of a Criminal Record?

Expungement refers to a legal process that destroys your criminal record as though it never happened, although in some cases a copy of the record may remain available to judicial and law enforcement officials for potential use in future court cases.

In some states the terms sealing and expungement are used interchangeably, but they are not quite the same. Sealing removes your record from public view, but does not destroy it. In most cases the two procedures have the same effect: You are able to legally answer "no" when asked if you have a criminal record.

What Records Can Be Expunged?

Laws vary widely from state to state about which crimes can be expunged and when. In general, you may be able to have first-time misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies expunged, but violent felonies usually cannot be expunged. Some states allow only juvenile records to be expunged, and a few states, like Georgia, allow expungement of arrest records but not convictions.

In most cases, federal crimes cannot be expunged. An exception may occur if the conviction is later found to have been unconstitutional or the result of government misconduct. When expungement is allowed, any records—including fingerprints, DNA evidence and pictures—held in court files, detention centers or law enforcement facilities are expunged.

General Procedure for Getting a Criminal Record Expunged

Specifics vary by state, but here is the general procedure you can expect:

Determine your eligibility. Typically you will need to meet the following requirements:

  • Your crime must be eligible for expungement under your state's laws.
  • You must have completed any sentence associated with your crime.
  • A certain amount of time must have passed, often one year.
  • You must not have committed additional crimes during this period.

File a written request. The request for expungement often includes certain documents, including copies of your criminal records. You may also need to notify the district attorney's office that prosecuted you and the original law enforcement agency. The original prosecuting attorney may need to sign off on your request before your records will be destroyed.

Request a court hearing. This is your chance to prove you qualify for expungement.

The entire process of obtaining expungement of criminal records can be complicated and may take up to a year, so it's a good idea to consult a criminal lawyer familiar with expungement proceedings.