Is there a difference between "sealing" and "expunging" juvenile records?

To seal juvenile criminal records may be to expunge—or it may not.

Many young—and even older—adults who were in trouble with the law as juveniles reasonably wonder whether they can have the relevant records sealed or expunged. Oftentimes, sealing or expungement is possible. In some instances, the process may even be automatic. But which is it, “sealing” or “expungement”?

Same Meaning?

“Sealing” and “expungement” are often used interchangeably in reference to juvenile criminal records. For instance, the Utah Courts website explains that “expunging a record means that the court orders the records of the juvenile court and related records of state, county and local government agencies to be sealed.” It elaborates: “Sealing a record means that the public cannot view or copy the record.”

Important Distinction?

But some states distinguish between the two terms. To seal records may mean to make them very difficult to access, while to expunge them may be to remove or destroy them. For example, the Office of the Ohio Public Defender explains that sealing involves removal of a juvenile file “from the court’s main section of records” and placement “in a separate location that is only accessible by the juvenile court.” Expunging, the Ohio Public Defender instructs, is the destruction or deletion of the file such that it “is permanently gone from the court’s records.”

Not One Size

Ultimately, the precise meaning—and effect—of  “sealing” and “expungement” depend on the state. Some states may use only one term or the other. And some may use altogether different terminology, like “expunction.”

For more information on  sealing and expunging, see Sealing Juvenile Court Records. For explanation of the law in your area and advice, consult an attorney with juvenile record experience in your court system.

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