A criminal record can create difficult downstream consequences, whether the record is for having been arrested or convicted (or both). For example, employers and landlords commonly ask job applicants and rental applicants whether they have ever been convicted of (or perhaps even arrested for) a criminal offense. Employers might not hire—and landlords might not rent to—people who answer "yes" to these questions. The good news is that, in some cases, you may be able to get an arrest or conviction expunged from your record.
Expungement refers to the process of sealing arrest, conviction, and related records from public view. Virtually every state has enacted laws that allow people to expunge arrests and convictions from their records. Though the details can vary from one state to the next, most states' laws provide that once an arrest or conviction has been expunged, it need not be disclosed, including to potential employers or landlords.
While not every conviction or person qualifies for expungement, many states are expanding expungement eligibility. So it's always worthwhile to check out your state's laws.
Most states place some limits on what offenses qualify for expungement. For example, a jurisdiction might allow expungement only for arrests and misdemeanor convictions but not for felony convictions. Some states provide a list of ineligible offenses. Common ineligible offenses include violent offenses, homicides, sex offenses, impaired driving (DUI), and bribery or fraud offenses.
Many states make expungement available only after a person finishes serving the entire sentence, including any term of probation. A state might require payment of all fines, fees, and restitution associated with the offense.
Also, check to see whether a wait period applies. Before requesting an expungement, some laws require a person to wait a certain amount of time (say 1, 5, or 10 years) after completing their sentence and remain crime free during that time.
Tip: Even if your offense falls under an ineligible category at the moment, check the law every year to see if it changed.
Expungement doesn't necessarily require hiring an attorney. Many courts have forms and instructions available online or at the courthouse. Typically, a person must fill out paperwork (such as an expungement petition), file the paperwork with the court and the prosecutor's office, and sometimes pay a filing fee. The next step is typically a court hearing.
Each state uses its own procedures, which can vary by offense, disposition, and other factors. While many states are working to make the process easier (and even automatic in some places), it can take some time and effort to get the expungement through. If you need assistance, consider hiring an attorney or seek out a legal aid organization (some run free expungement clinics).
Not completely. Very few states actually destroy an expunged record. Typically, expunging a record means to seal it from public view, preventing prospective landlords, employers, licensing boards, and the general public from seeing the record.
Rather than destroy the record, most states make it confidential so the public can't view it, but it can be used by judges, law enforcement, and prosecutors for any future criminal charging or sentencing decisions. Certain state employers or licensing boards may also ask the court to open an expunged record when a person applies for a sensitive position, such as working in a daycare, nursing home, or criminal justice agency.
And, of course, the internet never forgets. Expungement applies only to government records. Whatever information is out there in newspapers, on social media, or in private databases will likely remain there unless you take additional efforts to address such information.
Contact an attorney if you're not comfortable going through the process of expunging your records on your own or you're just overwhelmed. Other helpful resources may be found on the court's website or on the website of a legal aid or expungement clinic. Do a quick online search or check out some of these resources: