What is Expungement Law?

To expunge means to get rid of and expunge, which means to get rid of records, is the title of a law approved by the President on November 3, 1986. This law (amending An Act Revising the Code of Criminal Procedure and For Other Purposes) applies to an applicant who is at least 21 years old and has a case in the Supreme Court or a case in which a sentence of death was imposed or life imprisonment with or without an allowance for parole for 15 days.

If you had a criminal record, it's still possible to have your record expunged, although specific criteria must be met.

For most of the world, arrest and conviction information can be easily accessed and reviewed with little effort. This record is available to anyone interested simply by going to the county clerk's office and performing a public records search. It can also be seen online by private criminal records databases.

Different states have different names for the process involving erasing, sealing, or setting aside a criminal record: expunging, sealing, or a "set aside." In some states, this happens automatically after a certain period has elapsed, while in other states, the person must apply to have their record expunged or sealed.

Expunge Arrest Records

In certain situations involving arrests and citations, it is possible to have the case expunged and records of the incident removed from the individual's records. Unfortunately, such expungement is available only to individuals who qualify and complete a specific process. Any records that law enforcement did or did not obtain before expungement may be freely used in civil or criminal proceedings.

Expunging an arrest record is the only way to determine definitively that an arrest record did not occur, though the legal standard in most jurisdictions merely establishes a presumption that an arrest did occur.

An expungement is a court order which is used to inform the authorities and private companies (such as banks, employers, insurers, or housing authorities) that an arrest record does not exist and that no such information can be disclosed to a new employer, bank officer, or potential homeowner, renter, or applicant. This type of expungement has particular utility when seeking employment or housing, as the existence of such an event can detrimentally impact an adverse decision.

The convictions for which you may apply for expungement include the following:
  • The defendant was innocent of the charge(s) or charges;
  • had not been previously convicted of two or more misdemeanor charges;
  • had completed a term of probation or imprisonment for the charge(s) or charges;
  • has had the charge(s) or charges dismissed by the prosecuting authority; or,
  • has had the charge(s) or charges reduced to a misdemeanor.

Certain types of convictions can be expunged. Generally, misdemeanors and some felonies qualify. To qualify for expungement, the person seeking an expungement must show that they have complied with every aspect of the sentence imposed by the judge, including the successful completion of probation or parole. There will also be a waiting period. The length of the waiting period depends on the nature of the conviction, and there can be no new arrests or convictions during this time. Finally, a filing fee is usually to be paid when the petition for expungement is submitted.

Updating Client Databases

Once an expungement has been granted, the court will seal or destroy the conviction in its possession.

The conviction is no longer a matter of public record and can be legally denied by a government agency or a potential employer. Unfortunately, the court's order will likely not be enough to change the records maintained by the various entities that may have information regarding the conviction (including those who perform background checks). The burden often falls on the individual or attorney to contact these entities and order them to update their records accordingly. This process can quickly become time-consuming and frustrating, especially if the individual contacted for one record must also contact every other entity that may have information about the conviction. In many states, it is the individual's responsibility to submit a copy of the expungement order to these entities and request that they update their records accordingly. Individuals or their attorneys may need to disseminate proof of the expungement to other courts, prosecuting attorney offices, the department of motor vehicles, and family services agencies.

For example, a felony conviction may appear in a database maintained by the FBI so that it may be found by employers or others conducting a background check. After expunging that conviction, a copy of the court order instructing that all records must be destroyed should be sent to the FBI. However, because the FBI is a federal government agency, it is not bound by an order issued by a state court.