What Criminal Convictions Stay on Your Permanent Record?
Do you know how a criminal record works or what it really is? Learn more in this guide to the criminal convictions that stick.
You made a mistake, and you paid for it, but how long will your criminal convictions follow you?
As a society, we use criminal background checks in a variety of ways: to hire, to lease, and as part of credit screening. As a result, your criminal record exists in multiple places, including on your credit report, your state’s criminal history, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, and more.
Unfortunately, your criminal record (including any arrests) is available to anyone with access (usually law enforcement, employers, or credit reporting agencies) forever.
The only one of these records that you can typically alter is your state’s criminal history. And none of your arrests or convictions disappear automatically. You must ask for them to be expunged – and a judge must approve it.
What Is Expungement?
Expungement is the process of destroying or sealing your criminal conviction so that no one can see the record (bar a few exceptions). It removes it from your criminal record and the public record (to a minimal extent).
When you ask to expunge a criminal conviction from your record, you aren’t asking for recognition of innocence (i.e., a pardon). The conviction – including fines paid and time served – stay in place.
Instead, expungement is a judicial process that happens through the court to hide your criminal convictions from the view of the general public.
Can I Remove a State Conviction?
Almost every expungement that happens in the U.S. occurs in state courts according to each state’s laws on the subject. To get started, your attorney needs to file a motion with the court.
The records that you can expunge, how to do it, and what happens to those records when expungement is complete vary from state to state.
In most cases, juvenile records benefit most from the process, and most records expunged are related to convictions received by those under 18. In some states, only juveniles can ask for expungement: adult offenders must live with their record.
Generally, offenses like misdemeanors or low-level state felonies are more likely to be expunged. Driving offenses or minor possession charges are good examples, and you can usually apply after a set period has passed.
Often, you can’t just ask for expungement. You also need to participate in ethical behavior and demonstrate a benefit for expungement. If you get arrested for the same crime again, you are more likely to be denied.
Very few states allow a convict to even apply for expungement for crimes like murder or kidnapping. You’re unlikely to receive it even if you do petition the court. Felony sex crimes are almost never eligible for expungement and usually require you to register on lists that result in your conviction data even more widely available.
Can I Remove a Federal Conviction?
Expunging a federal conviction is both more complicated and less likely to be successful.
Not only are courts less likely to hear them, but there’s no federal statute that guides the process.
If you are looking for expungement because you were innocent of the crime (and there is a paper trail demonstrating this), then your best hope is to ask for a pardon. However, even a presidential pardon leaves your record intact. Both your federal conviction and the pardon thus appear on your criminal record.
Those interested in a clemency appeal and who believe they have a case must contact the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sealed vs. Destroyed: Who Can See Your Record?
If you are successful in your petition for expungement, then one of two things happens: the court orders your records to be sealed or destroyed.
There are important distinctions between the two.
When a record is sealed, then law enforcement officers can still see it. However, no one else can read it. For example, a landlord performing a background check won’t be able to see any arrests or convictions that you get expunged.
Did the judge order your record to be destroyed? Then, all the relevant documents are removed from the state court and destroyed. Each state has unique protocols for the process.
However, what you may not realize is that the process only concerns the matter you petition in the court you petition. It doesn’t cover anything else.
Why Sealed and Destroyed Records Don’t Cleanse the Public Record
An expunged record – whether sealed or destroyed – never removes the public record outside the court’s jurisdiction. That means there can still be records of your arrest or conviction in the press or on social media. Additionally, the police department doesn’t need to destroy your arrest record itself.
What does that mean for you?
Even if your background check comes up clean, an employer or landlord (or anyone else) can still see the details of your case if they google you.
The bottom line: expunged arrests and convictions never truly leave the public record and offer privacy protection.
There are things you can do to request the removal of links from the internet, but it is entirely up to the author or poster to remove them. Because they fall under the public record and they aren’t slander, your best choice is to build up a positive online reputation to give searchers something else to focus on.
Expunging Criminal Convictions Is Complicated
If you were convicted of a misdemeanor or low-level state felony, then you can likely apply for expungement from the state court after time passes. It’s not automatic: you must petition the court and present a good case to succeed.
However, even if your criminal convictions are sealed or destroyed, expungement doesn’t clear all public records. Press stories, social media posts, and other items can still turn up on the internet and get in the way of your clean slate. Unfortunately, there’s nothing the court can do about this.
Did you find this article helpful? Check out our other guides to keeping your information private on social media.