When a person is charged with a crime or convicted of a crime, the information stays on the person’s criminal record and may be accessed by the court or other federal, state, municipal, or county agencies—or by private persons or entities conducting a background check.
Under limited circumstances a person with a criminal record of arrest or conviction may be able to have the criminal record expunged—meaning the record will be permanently destroyed or deleted so it is no longer accessible by the court or other federal, state, municipal, or county agencies—or by private persons or entities conducting a background check.
Such an expungement or expunction of a criminal record is different from having a record sealed—which means the record still exists, but access to it is limited. A person whose only criminal record has been expunged may truthfully answer “no” when asked on an employment, licensing, or other application whether the person has ever been convicted of a crime.
Under both state and federal law, in most cases it is not possible to have a person’s criminal conviction expunged. For example, under federal law only a person who is guilty of a minor drug offense under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. §844) may have their record expunged. See 18 U.S.C. §3607(c).
Under state laws a person who has been convicted of a crime, pleaded guilty, or pleaded no contest (nolo contendere) is often ineligible to have their criminal record expunged. When a person is eligible to have a criminal record expunged, it is often dependent upon the person successfully completing a probation or deferred adjudication program. And in some states juveniles may be eligible to have a criminal record expunged if the criminal offense was committed before they turned 17 years of age, for example.
Expungement or expunction laws vary from state to state and are generally located in a state’s statutes—often in the penal or criminal code.