It's a huge relief when the prosecution announces a decision not to file charges. But that doesn't mean the arrestee should do nothing further. Records of the arrest (and possibly fingerprints, a warrant, or booking records) don't typically go away on their own. Plus, the public often can access these records.
But don't despair, in many instances, a person can take several steps to lessen, if not virtually eradicate, their criminal-law footprint. It's usually worth the effort, as a record of dealings with law enforcement can have painful effects, including when it comes to employment and housing.
Each state deals with non-conviction records differently. When it comes to uncharged arrests, a person may have options short of going to court to seal or expunge the record. Not having to go to court often saves time and money, so be sure to check out options available through government agencies. Also, know that some state laws make individuals wait a certain amount of time on an inactive arrest file (say a year) before allowing the records to be sealed.
Check with the following government agencies to see if a process exists to request the sealing, expungement, or destruction of uncharged arrest records:
(Your state might use a different name or agency than those listed in parentheses.)
In a few states, the record deleting or sealing process happens automatically. However, in the vast majority of states, the arrestee will need to make a formal request to get these records sealed, amended, or deleted.
A state might require a person to ask the court to clean up arrest records. If that's the case, the court order might direct all the other government agencies to delete or seal any records they have related to the arrest. This option can be advantageous if it means a one-stop fix.
Check the court website to see if forms are available online. Filing a court petition might cost a fee, but some states waive these fees when a petition involves a non-conviction record or the person qualifies as low income.
Many states are trying to make the process of clearing non-conviction records easier and cheaper than it's been in the past. Start with an internet search that includes the name of your state and keywords or phrases such as "record clearing," "sealing," "expunge," "arrest records," and "non-conviction." Some courts and legal services agencies have websites, forms, or other information on how to clear your record.
Even as states try to make the process easier, it doesn't always end up being the case. If you're can't make heads or tails of the process, contact a criminal defense attorney. Or if you have questions about the legal effect of the process (like what you can legally say on an employment background check), a criminal defense attorney can advise you.
Below are some additional resources that might be helpful.