An expungement proceeding is designed to have the records of a prior criminal conviction destroyed, eliminated or sealed. The common phraseology associated with this type of process is "expunging a record." Each state as well as the federal judiciary has its own set of statutes, regulations and practices associated with the expungement process. Technically speaking, an expungement proceeding is a civil suit and not an extension of a criminal case. A prosecuting attorney can object to a proposed expungement with the court making the ultimate decision as to whether or not a record or a prior criminal conviction will be expunged.
The expungement process actually originates in the early days of the common law legal system, the legal structure that initially developed in England and was utilized as the foundation of what has become the U.S. legal and judicial systems. Under common law principles and practices, a person convicted of a crime could petition the Sovereign to have the record of that conviction eliminated. The granting of an expungement was at the pleasure of the monarch.
Each state, as well as the federal court system, has established its own set of rules and policies pertaining to the expungement process. One common element in the laws, regulations and rules governing expungement is that a person seeking such relief must allow a specified period to time to elapse from the time when the sentence in a case ended, and the time when expungement is sought. Additionally, there are also certain types of crimes that are not eligible for expungement (certain violent crimes, crimes against children, and so forth).
The underlying function of an expungement, if granted, is to remove from a person's record reference to a particular criminal conviction. An expungement is not the same as a pardon. A pardon literally causes a conviction to cease to exist in its entirety, as if it did not occur in the first instance. An expungement is designed to remove a record of a conviction from a person's record. As a result, with the exception of certain law enforcement officials, a record of that prior conviction should not otherwise be available.
There are a variety of benefits associated with an expungement. At this juncture in time, the most common reason many people seek expungements is because it prevents a prospective employer from gaining access to a record of a prior crime. In today's highly competitive job-seeking world, even a fairly minor conviction in the past can prevent an individual from being considered for a position of employment.
Many people who have obtained expungements believe that there will be no evidence whatsoever left of a prior crime and conviction. Although this is the general intent behind the expungement process, it is not foolproof. While a record of a previous conviction is supposed to be destroyed, sealed or eliminated after an expungement, there are many examples in which evidence of a conviction remains accessible to people intent on finding such information (including prospective employers). Therefore, when a person seeks and is granted an expungement, a degree of caution and prudence is in order in regard to the existence of an accessible record of a prior conviction.