What's the Difference Between Expunged vs. Sealed Records?

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

No one wants a criminal record, but it can be easy to make bad decisions and find yourself caught up in the criminal justice system. Even a comparatively minor arrest or conviction can result in a criminal record which can follow you for the rest of your life. However, there are ways to wipe the slate clean and have your criminal records sealed or even expunged. But whether a criminal record can be sealed or expunged depends on the state in which the record exists, and that state's criteria for eligibility.

Read on to learn about the difference between expunged vs. sealed records, and see some state-specific examples of how and when you can get your records sealed.

Expungement: An Overview

The process of clearing an arrest or conviction from a person's criminal record is called expungement. While this is an attractive option, it isn't available for all arrests and convictions. Whether expungement is available mainly depends on the jurisdiction in which the arrest or conviction occurred.

If your jurisdiction allows for expungement, the next step is to determine if the particular arrest or conviction is eligible for expungement. For example, a state may require that a certain amount time pass following an arrest before it becomes eligible for expungement. State laws may only allow certain convictions to be expunged.

Expunged vs. Sealed Records: A Comparison

It's important to compare expunged vs. sealed records when trying to determine what these two processes entail. While expungement clears a conviction or arrest off of a person's record, sealed records give the appearance that the conviction or arrest has been cleared. In essence, when a person's record is sealed, it means that it's not readily available to the public. However, sealed records can still be accessed or "re-opened" by way of a court order. Just like the process and criteria for sealing a record, how and when a record can be unsealed depends on a particular jurisdiction's laws.

Sealed Records: State-Specific Examples

As can be seen from the descriptions above, expungement is usually a better option than sealing a record because it's permanent. Unfortunately, expungement isn't available in every jurisdiction.

In Arizona, for example, a criminal record can't be expunged. Instead, a person with a criminal record can obtain a "Set Aside." A "Set Aside" doesn't clear or hide a conviction, but rather indicates that the offender has completed all penalties associated with the crime.

In California, a person who's been arrested or convicted can seek to seal their record. Whether an offender's record will be sealed - and the process for sealing the record - will depend on the circumstances of the arrest or conviction. For example, a person who was acquitted at trial can have any record of their arrest or detention sealed. Those arrested for a crime, but who never had formal charges filed against them, or had the charges against them dismissed, can not only request to have their arrest sealed, but also destroyed.

Have More Questions About Expunged vs. Sealed Records? Get Answers From a Legal Professional

While not all criminal records are eligible for expungement or sealing, it doesn't hurt to explore that option, especially with a professional who understands how the system works in your state. The best way to cover your bases is to discuss your situation with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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