Frequently Asked Questions About the Expungement of Criminal Records

Prior to law school, I had never heard of the term "expungement." Maybe I was naive, or just uneducated in criminal law and criminal procedure. But it never occurred to me that (a) there is a process by which people can have criminal records expunged; and (b) there are people out there that need to utilize such a process.

Before I get too far in this article, however, I want to let you know that I am a Maryland criminal attorney, a Virginia criminal attorney, and a DC criminal attorney, so anything discussed in this is the jurisprudence of expunements in those jurisdictions. Additionally, DC statutes provide for expungement only in very limited circumstances, while Virginia and Maryland have some rawer statutes. All three are different and, therefore, the information you obtain in this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Finally, if you need to have criminal records expunged in any other jurisdiction, you should consult an attorney who is licensed in that state to give you advice and information.

1. What is expungement?

Expungement is the process by which certain criminal records can be destroyed, usually after a certain period of time or a result in court – for example, after an acquittal, nolle prosequi, probation before judgment, or other dismissal of the charge.

While this article is about expungement, I want to point out an important difference between expunging records and sealing records. Expungement means that the records are completely destroyed. It is as though the crime never happened, or at least the record of the crime does not exist. Sealing means that the records are still there, but a court order forbids them from being seen by most people.

2. What criminal records can be expunged?

It is important to note that not all criminal records, charges, results, convictions, etc. can be expunged. However, when it is determined that records are able to be expunged, generally all records within any court, correctional facility, detention center, law enforcement agency, or criminal justice information relating to that person's criminal charge will be expunged. This typically includes information relating to apprehension, arrest, detention, trial, or disposition for that particular crime.

3. Are criminal records automatically expunged?

Except in limited circumstances, criminal records are not automatically expunged. Usually, the person requesting the expungement, or their criminal attorney, needs to file a motion or petition in the court and then follow various procedures to have the record expunged. Often times, records can not be expunged until a certain time period elapses. In some instances, such as in some juvenile cases, records may be automatically sealed or expunged once the juvenile defense reaches a certain age.

4. Can an expungement request be denied?

Absolutely expungement requests can be rejected. First, and foremost, expungement is not an absolute right. Criminal records can only be expunged in limited circumstances and only if the applicant follows the procedures correctly. Expungements are often denied because time periods are not met, the petition is insufficient, the records are not those that can be expunged, and for many other reasons.

As a general rule, criminal records are public information. That is to say anyone can go to the Maryland, Virginia, or DC courthouse and find out if you have been arrested or convicted of a crime. Expungement is a method by which someone can limit or eliminate the accessibility of these records entirely. In the end, though, it is very important to note that expungement laws and procedure vary immensely from state to state, even between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.