Most states provide a way for their residents to expunge or seal their criminal records. The method varies by state, but many jurisdictions have enacted procedures that make it easier to proceed without an attorney. Some states even provide free clinics to help guide you through the process. All states, however, have very explicit laws regarding if, how and when you can expunge your record.
For most people, it’s no surprise that any time you’re found guilty of a crime, the information lands on a written report regarding your history with the judicial system. But even if you’re eventually found innocent, the details about your arrest remain on the record. Having your criminal convictions or arrests expunged removes those details from the prying eyes of potential landlords, employers and others interested in your background. Expunction doesn’t always completely erase your past, however, since many states allow judges and law enforcement agencies to access confidential records.
Your first step is to find out your state’s laws about expunging your record. Some states, like North Carolina, give you a once-in-a-lifetime chance of removing a misdemeanor charge if you weren’t convicted or were under the age of 21 at the time of your arrest. New York doesn’t allow you to expunge your record, but you may qualify to have it sealed. Illinois provides worksheets you can complete to determine whether you’re eligible to have your records expunged or sealed.
States also have very specific forms that you must complete before filing your case, and these vary widely from state to state. Your state or local legal aid society can provide information about how to locate your state’s laws and the specific steps for filing. The court clerk or website for the court in the county where you were arrested can often direct you to information about necessary qualifications, as well as the appropriate forms and filing process. The clerk cannot give you legal advice regarding your case.
What You Need
Generally, to begin the legal process for expunging or sealing your records, you’ll need your copy of the criminal record, including written documentation of the arrest and/or the conviction you're hoping to expunge. If you don’t have yours, it’s usually available through the arresting agency. To file, go to the clerk of the court in the appropriate jurisdiction, pay the required fees, and submit the petition and required documentation to request a hearing before a judge. Some jurisdictions allow you to mail this paperwork to the court via certified mail. The clerk will schedule a hearing and provide you with written documentation of the date and time.
You are also required to send copies of your paperwork and the scheduled hearing notice to several state and county agencies, such as the county prosecutor’s office. This step is time sensitive since these agencies must have advance notice of your hearing date. Depending on the court’s schedule, it can take several months to see a judge. At the hearing, the judge will review your paperwork, ask you a few questions and determine whether or not to grant your request.
Seeking Legal Guidance
Expunging an arrest or conviction from your record is a lengthy and state-specific process. Many states, such as New Jersey and Illinois, try to make it easier by providing step-by-step guidance for moving through the process without a lawyer. Other states, like North Carolina, offer free tutoring clinics to low-income persons who can’t afford an attorney. If you feel you need further help but can’t afford an attorney, local legal aid societies can direct you to lawyers in your area who offer legal services for free or at a reduced fee.