As the American Bar Association explains here, “[t]o ‘expunge’ is to ‘erase or remove completely.’ ” In the justice system, ” ‘expungement’ is the process by which a record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed from state or federal record.” But how do you get your record expunged? The answer to that question depends on where you are and where your conviction happened.
Can you get your record expunged in federal court?
Maybe. As the Restoration of Rights Project explains here, “[t]here is no general federal expungement statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records of a valid federal conviction.” This means that federal law does not give federal courts the authority to expunge your record — even in cases where you deserve one or a state would usually grant one.
However, some federal courts have still expunged people’s records in limited situations. If, for instance, an arrest or conviction on your record was invalid, some judges may expunge it from your record. They do so by relying on the inherent authority of courts. A second example occurs when someone makes a clerical error. But, even in these situations, not all courts grant expungements.
Can you get your record expunged in state court?
Sometimes. Whether you can get your record expunged in state court depends on the state you are in and the type of conviction. To determine if you’re eligible for an expungement in your state, you need to look at your state’s law. As an example, assume you live and have a criminal conviction in Florida. In Florida, there is a specific statute (that you can read here) that sets forth the expungement requirements.
In general, Florida law only allows expungements where
- no indictment, information or other charging document was filed or the case was dismissed,
- no adjudication of guilt or delinquency was made in the case to be expunged or any others and
- there have been no prior sealed or expunged records in Florida or in any court.
If you’re thinking these requirements — which prohibit expungements where you have a criminal conviction — make expungement somewhat useless, you’re not alone. One Florida lawyer’s website puts it bluntly. “If you have ever been adjudicated guilty of any crime, felony or misdemeanor, you will not be able to qualify to have a criminal history record sealed or expunged.”
Thankfully, not every state restricts expungement as much as Florida. In fact, Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Wisconsin and federal court have the most restrictive laws in the U.S. As this page from the Restoration of Rights Project shows, the remaining states allow expungements in many circumstances. Taking time to learn the specific rules that apply in your state makes the process easier.
The term “expungement” refers to the process where the government destroys the record of your criminal conviction. While expungement doesn’t make the public record disappear, it destroys the official record forever. Unfortunately, federal courts and most state courts can’t expunge records in many cases.
You need to take time to understand how the process in your state works before starting. Also, you need to understand the differences between having your record sealed and having your record expunged. You also need to understand that whether expungement really works depends on your goals.