Expungement (also called “expunction”) is a court-ordered process in which the legal record of an arrest or a criminal conviction is “sealed,” or erased in the eyes of the law. When a conviction is expunged, the process may also be referred to as “setting aside a criminal conviction.”
Since an expungement can offer a fresh start of sorts, one of the most important actions that people who have been arrested or convicted can take is to investigate their jurisdiction’s expungement procedures. Start by checking with your county’s criminal court, or even the law enforcement agency that handled your arrest. Specifically, ask the following questions about eligibility for expungement and the procedure that’s involved:
Is a particular offense eligible for expungement? For example, a jurisdiction may allow expungement only for arrests and misdemeanor convictions and not allow felony convictions to be expunged.
When is a person eligible for an expungement? For example, expungement may be available only after people have finished serving their sentences, including any term of probation. (But, if there’s a good reason, a judge may shorten a period of probation in order to allow expungement to take place earlier.)
What does the expungement process involve? Expungement doesn’t necessarily require hiring an attorney. Many courts have forms available, with titles along the lines of “Motion for Expungement.”
What are the consequences of expungement? Even if a conviction has been expunged, could it still show up in some circumstances? For example, police departments and some licensing boards may be able to find out about job applicants’ expunged records.
Getting a “Certificate of Actual Innocence”
A Certificate of Actual Innocence is perhaps the most powerful form of expungement. This certificate does more than seal a prior record, it proves that a record should never have existed at all. Let’s say that Joe is arrested for vandalism for spraying buildings with graffiti, but the charges are later dropped. Or perhaps Joe is charged with vandalism, and he goes to trial and is found not guilty. In either situation, Joe might seek to obtain a certificate establishing that he was factually innocent of the offense.
Drug Crimes and Juvenile Offenses
In many jurisdictions, people who have been arrested or convicted for drug crimes and juvenile offenders may have an easier path to expungement. (Learn more about drug arrests and convictions in Nolo’s article Drug Laws and Drug Charges.)
Drug offenses. Many people arrested for drug offenses are eligible for diversion programs. These programs typically provide for the expungement of records following the satisfactory completion of a program.
Juvenile offenses. People who were arrested or convicted as juvenile offenders may have an easier time getting their criminal records expunged or sealed. Usually this is an option once the person reaches the age of 18, and they’ve otherwise stayed out of trouble with the law. Learn more in Nolo’s article Sealing Juvenile Court Records.
To ensure the integrity and security of our electronic records, the Office of the Pardon Attorney will not accept any type of digital media as part of or in supplement to an application for clemency. Such items will be returned to the sender via US Postal Mail.
PETITION FOR COMMUTATION (REDUCTION) OF SENTENCE
Federal Convictions Only
Under the Constitution, the President has the authority to commute, or reduce, a sentence imposed upon conviction of a federal offense, including for convictions adjudicated in the United States District Courts and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
The President cannot commute a sentence for a state criminal offense. Accordingly, if you are seeking clemency for a state criminal conviction, you should not complete and submit this petition. Instead, you should contact the Governor or other appropriate authorities of the state where the conviction occurred (e.g., the state board of pardons and paroles) to determine whether any relief is available to you under state law.