Expungement vs. Sealing Criminal Records

If you have been charged of a criminal offense or a felony in the past and you fear that that is going to affect how your current or future life (such as through difficulties in finding a job, obtaining housing, getting selected for public office or obtaining a state license), then you might be wondering how you can get rid of your criminal record in order to make your life easier. In all states of America, an individual who qualifies has the right to apply for expungement of their criminal record. However, the term also refers to the process that is actually known as record sealing. Although these two terms may be used interchangeably, they are actually very different from one another.

What is Expungement of Criminal Records?

When an individual obtains expunction of his or her criminal record, it is almost as if there was never any criminal charge in the first place. Any files bearing the individual’s criminal convictions are completely destroyed. It is not possible for any individual, agency or institution to gain access to these criminal records ever again. Furthermore, it is also not possible for the court to issue another order demanding the individual’s files to be brought forth again. Thus, there is complete removal of the individual’s criminal record and the person has a completely clean slate.

After a person’s criminal record has been expunged, he or she also has the legal right to claim that he or she has absolutely no criminal record or history. This means that the person can outright deny having had any run-in with the law enforcement agencies of the state. This can make a lot of things considerably easier for the individual in question. For example, if the person was to fill out a job application, they are likely to come across a question asking directly whether they have had any criminal convictions in the past. Once their records have been expunged, they can legally and truthfully answer no to that question.

What is Sealing of Criminal Records?

When a person’s criminal records are sealed, it means that it is not possible for an ordinary member of the public or agency to access their criminal records. For example, if a person’s records have been sealed and hidden from public viewing, then a potential employer or bank cannot look at the criminal history files. Like expunction, the sealing of criminal records also gives the individual the complete right to legally and truthfully claim that they have never had any problem with the law enforcement agencies of that particular state.

However, unlike expunction, the files containing a person’s criminal history records are not automatically deleted after their petition for record sealing has been accepted by the court. This basically means that the files still exist and, because of this, they can still be accessed. If the court were to issue an order that calls for the unsealing of records that have previously been sealed, the person’s criminal records can resurface once more. Any agency, individual or institution that has been authorized by the court has the right to access the person’s criminal records.

What is the Difference Between the Two?

In general, you can consider the expunction of criminal records to be a more extreme version of the criminal record clearance of an individual. With expunction, it is not possible for anyone to access a person’s file bearing their past convictions, whereas with record sealing, the judge and the court still retain the right to issue an order that demands the unsealing of records that were previously sealed. Therefore, expunction is permanent while record sealing can be reversed. Under expunction, a person’s criminal record is completely removed and it appears to never have existed in the first place. However, in the sealing of criminal records, the file containing a person’s criminal convictions is not easily accessible but does still exist.

What Should an Individual Choose: Expunction or Record Sealing?

In light of the above discussion, it can be seen that it is better for a person to have his or her criminal record expunged instead of simply having the criminal history file sealed. However, it is also important to note that this is done on a matter of availability and eligibility; thus, the person has little to no say in the matter. For example, in some states, the law simply allows individuals to have their records sealed – there is no option available to have one’s records expunged. However, in other states, expunction is the only possible option that people have. Whether a person is granted expunction or record sealing, therefore, has to do a lot with the state in which he or she resides or where the criminal offense itself was committed.

In addition to this, whether a person is allowed to have his criminal records sealed or expunged also depends upon the nature of the crime they committed. There are certain criminal offenses, for example, that cannot be expunged under any circumstances. If a person has been found guilty after a trial or a plea by the court itself and has subsequently been convicted of carrying out that criminal offense, then they cannot have the criminal record expunged or sealed.

There are numerous examples of charges that can never be sealed, such as arson, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, the illegal use of explosive materials, abuse or aggravated abuse of a child or elderly person, kidnapping, aircraft piracy, homicide, sexual batter, carjacking, manslaughter, robbery, stalking, and dealing with illegal substances. In addition to this, other criminal offenses that are ineligible include sexual misconduct with a child, an elderly individual or an intellectually challenged individual, as well as selling or presenting obscene literature to a minor.

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