In both the state and federal criminal justice systems, criminal records of arrests, convictions, and other proceedings are generally open to the public. There are limited circumstances under which criminal records may be expunged (deleted). And in some circumstances, criminal records that are not eligible for expungement or expunction may be eligible for sealing or nondisclosure—usually by a court order. If a criminal record is sealed, private parties generally cannot release or access the records, but government agencies—including the police, licensing boards, and other agencies—may access the records. Sealed court records may also be admissible in some court proceedings.
Some documents in a criminal record are not ordinarily available to the public—such as unexecuted summonses or warrants; pretrial bail and presentence reports; juvenile records; documents containing information about jurors; and documents such as expenditure records that might reveal the defense strategies of court-appointed lawyers.
And in some circumstances judges have the authority to seal additional documents or to close hearings that would ordinarily be open to the public. Reasons for such actions can include protecting victims and cooperating witnesses or informants from retaliation; avoiding the release of information that might compromise an ongoing criminal investigation or a defendant’s due process rights; and protecting classified information affecting national security.
Federal judges rarely seal criminal arrest or conviction records. And laws regarding the circumstances under which criminal records may be sealed in a state court criminal prosecution vary from state to state. The state laws governing the sealing or nondisclosure of criminal records are usually located in a state’s statutes.