Expungement (also called "expunction") is a court-ordered process in which the legal record of an arrest or a criminal conviction is "sealed," or erased in the eyes of the law. When a conviction is expunged, the process may also be referred to as "setting aside a criminal conviction." The availability of expungement, and the procedure for getting an arrest or conviction expunged, will vary according to the state or county in which the arrest or conviction occurred. For more basics, download FindLaw's Guide to Expungement [pdf].
Legal Effect of an Expungement
An expungement ordinarily means that an arrest or convictions "sealed," or erased from a person's criminal record for most purposes. After the expungement process is complete, an arrest or a criminal conviction ordinarily does not need to be disclosed by the person who was arrested or convicted. For example, when filling out an application for a job or apartment, an applicant whose arrest or conviction has been expunged does not need to disclose that arrest or conviction.
In most cases, no record of an expunged arrest or conviction will appear if a potential employer, educational institution, or other company conducts a public records inspection or background search of an individual's criminal record.
Are Expunged Records Completely Gone?
An expunged arrest or conviction is not necessarily completely erased, in the literal sense of the word. An expungement will ordinarily be an accessible part of a person's criminal record, viewable by certain government agencies, including law enforcement and the criminal courts.This limited accessibility is sometimes referred to as a criminal record being "under seal." In some legal proceedings, such as during sentencing for any crimes committed after an expungement, or in immigration / deportation proceedings, an expunged conviction that is "under seal" may still be considered as proof of a prior conviction.
Factors Determining Eligibility for Expungement
Whether you may get a criminal record expunged depends on a number of factors, including the jurisdiction; the nature of the crime or charge; the amount of time that has passed since the arrest or conviction; and your criminal history. Some states, including New York, don't allow for the expungement of criminal convictions at all.
Expungement vs. Having Your Records Sealed
Having your criminal records sealed is similar to having them expunged, but much less "hidden." If your records are sealed, then it means they are not available to the public; this would include private investigators, credits, and employers. However, these records still exist in the context of the criminal justice system. For example, they sealed convictions will still be considered prior offenses if you are arrested in the future.
Get Legal Help with Your Questions About Expungement
The laws relating to expungement are highly variable and different jurisdictions may have different requirements that need to be met before an expungement can be granted. It's a good idea to contact a criminal defense attorney who can advise you about the requirements to have your prior conviction expunged, taking into account local rules and the facts of your case.